Surviving the Season: Dealing with Grief During the Holidays
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
Or are you cringing? The holidays are upon us and along with the shopping, singing carols, and drinking eggnog often come feelings of loneliness and grief. For many people the holiday season is fraught with anxiety, frustration and sadness.
I see many in my practice who dread December as others might dread a root canal.
For some, it’s the financial pressure to buy the biggest and best gifts.
For others the stress of traveling across the country and dealing with difficult family members is enough to put them over the edge.
But the issue that cuts deepest is probably revisiting the loss of a loved one over the holiday season.
This reawakening of grief makes sense. After all, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever you celebrate are traditionally times spent with family and loved ones. Precious memories are created during these special times and familial rituals are observed. These are often our warmest and happiest memories from childhood. But that can change dramatically after the death of a loved one. These same remembrances become rude reminders of what was and cannot be any more.
Clients talk about missing their loved ones more than usual this time of year. It’s partially those memories that create pain, but also the uncertainty of knowing how to celebrate in the midst of sadness.
For some, this might bring up feelings of guilt, particularly about living life while a loved one no longer has the opportunity to enjoy the festivity of the season. Others experience anger that they can’t share in old traditions with the departed. Confusion abounds as you try to navigate all these feelings, while also living in the chaos of holiday shopping and glitzy parties, making conversation with others who just seem merry and bright.
Whatever complicated feelings you might be experiencing this holiday season, try not to deny those emotional states. Make room for your sadness, anger, disappointment, or fear, and don’t judge yourself. Try talking with a close friend or therapist about what’s going on, or write in a journal. If you don’t make room for these complex emotions it’s possible that they will overwhelm you at a less than convenient time.
While you’re doing well to make space for your feelings, also realize that you don’t need to exacerbate your emotional state. There is sometimes a fine line between allowing and wallowing. It won’t serve you to to repeatedly revisit the pain, complete with sad playlist and bottle of wine. Allow for the feelings to come up, acknowledge them, but then move on.
After you’ve processed memories and feelings, do something to honor your loved one. This might mean making a donation to one of their favorite causes, meaningful volunteer work, or participating in an activity they especially loved. Whatever you choose, keep your loved one in your heart and think of it as your ‘gift’ to them.
If all else fails, don’t be afraid to retreat. For some, it is just too much to be around all the cheerfulness and constant reminders of happier times. If that is the case for you, consider escaping it all and going on a literal retreat. There are many such offerings, often combined with yoga or silent introspection. If you’re interested try googling “holiday retreat” and many options will come up.
Even if you’re not feeling happy tonight, that’s ok, you’ll make it through this winterland. Just be kind to yourself along the way.