by Glynis Sherwood MEd
Grief can intensify during the holiday season, as memories of loved ones who’ve died, or from whom we’ve parted, or other traumatic personal losses, remind us of a past that was and will never be again. The first Christmas after the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a job loss can feel especially challenging. And the emphasis placed on looking ahead to the New Year can feel out of sync with the more ‘backward-gazing’ and reflective focus of grief. Social norms, expectations and traditions can also lead to the intensification of grief during the holiday season in the following ways:
• Christmas is traditionally a family time, and by its very nature spotlights the absence or loss of family members through death or divorce; separation through geographic distance or illness; family breakdown or estrangement.
• Christmas is also time of sharing bounty with others, and losses such as the death of a breadwinner, un or under-employment, or family breakdown leading to financial insecurity can cause grief, as well as guilt and anger.
• Societal and family expectations of that one be cheerful and outgoing at Christmas – in spite of life’s losses – can feel like pressure to be someone you are not, on top of dealing with grief.
So the challenge remains: how to get through and possibly enjoy Christmas. The ‘How’ involves reducing stress, sadness and loneliness while allowing yourself to grieve as you need to.
Aside from common sense approaches – including getting adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise and avoiding excess alcohol, sugar and food – grieving people have found the following strategies to be helpful:
1. Make Plans – avoid loneliness and negative thinking.
2. Allow yourself to be aware of your thoughts and feeling about your loss.
3. Spend time with people you care about and who care about you.
4. Talk as much as you need with people who know about your loss and will non-judgmentally accept your need to acknowledge your loss. Think about and share positive thoughts about deceased loved ones – what you learned from them, how they made the world a better place, etc.
5. Honor the memory of deceased loved ones through rituals that bring comfort to yourself and others – e.g. a special ornament, stocking, photo, etc.
6. Steer clear of conflict and minimize being around others who don’t understand your loss – especially people who tell you to “cheer up” or “forget about it”.
7. Avoid ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol or drugs to numb pain, so that you can stay aware of your emotions and do the grief work you need to do to heal.
8. Cuddle with your pets – unconditional love can be so comforting.
9. Create new Christmas and New Years rituals that you can look forward to next year and beyond. This may include things you do with your family and/or things you do on your own. For example, one family I know started a boxing day ritual where they visit a beach that is a special place they and their deceased loved one used to go together. Another family started annual ski trips – something they didn’t do with their loved one but now do together to honor surviving family members.
10. Practice Mindfulness – focus on getting past worry and fear by being in the moment. Remembering what you still have to be grateful for can help tremendously.
11. Maintain Perspective – the first year after loss is usually the hardest. You can likely look forward to next year being easier. It helps to take this perspective into the New Year.
12. If you believe you are ‘stuck’ in grief, or your grief is intensifying, especially after more than 6 months to a year, arrange to see a counsellor who specializes in recovery from complicated, traumatic or prolonged grief.