Grief, Loss, and the Holidays

Grief is a difficult burden to bear, and it becomes even heavier during the holidays. The weight of traditions, expectations, and memories can seem immense and impossible. The following suggestions are intended to help offload some of the burden of grief:

1. Anticipate pain.

Pretending that holiday joy can erase your grief is unrealistic. Instead, go into the season with reasonable expectations. Don’t be afraid to cry, or get angry, or feel depressed. These are normal feelings associated with loss, and they do not need to be avoided.

2. Rethink routines.

For some people, holiday traditions may be a source of comfort — because they provide a sense of familiarity in the face of dramatic change. For others, traditions may actually intensify the sense of loss. It can be helpful to (1) think of traditions as “containers” that carry deeper intangibles, and then (2) realize you can change the container without damaging the contents.

For example, Judy and her mother Helen had a tradition of baking Christmas cookies every December. They would invite the grandchildren to Helen’s house, where they spent a full day singing along with Christmas music, talking about school, flipping through old recipe cards, sipping coffee and eggnog, telling jokes, and listening to each other’s stories — while baking dozens and dozens of cookies. If anyone had suggested that Judy and Helen not make Christmas cookies one year, they would have been appalled. But when Helen died last month, Judy suddenly realized that their cookie tradition was a container that held the intangibles that were really important — the conversations, the time together, the relationships. She knows the tradition will have to change, but it will be ok, because the underlying relationships are not dependent on that specific tradition.

By separating the “containers” from the “contents,” you may be able to enjoy the intangibles without the baggage of a tradition that may be too heavy for you right now. Consider trying new traditions, or modifying your existing traditions:

  • Bake muffins this year instead of cookies, or do the baking at someone else’s house.
  • Attend a different church service than you traditionally do. Or participate in the service in a different way — join the choir, volunteer to greet at the door, sit in a seat you’ve never sat in before.
  • Have a holiday brunch instead of dinner. Have a buffet instead of a sit-down meal. Go to a restaurant instead of eating at home.
  • Skip gift-giving this year and focus instead on writing cards and letters.
  • Don’t feel like you have to decorate.

All these little changes can free you to remember the intangibles that are really important.

3. Just say no.

When friends invite you to spend time with them, don’t feel obligated to say, “Yes.” Most people will understand if you’re physically tired or emotionally unable to accept an invitation. But even if they don’t understand, don’t let that become your problem. At the same time, be open to trying new things with new people when you can. You may find yourself unexpectedly refreshed.

4. Talk about it.

The people around you may be cautious about mentioning your loved one by name because they are afraid of making you cry. You can put them at ease by bringing up the subject yourself, and you might find healing in doing so. Saying something like, “Howard bought me this scarf last year” gives people an opportunity to share their own memories of Howard, if they’re able, or to at least say something nice about the scarf. And since you’ve already given yourself permission to cry (see #1), you don’t have to apologize if the conversation leads to tears.

5. Get enough rest.

Grief takes an emotional and physical toll on people. New routines, new decisions, new responsibilities — these can be exhausting. Getting enough sleep is important for healing.

6. Bless someone else.

In the midst of your grief, look for ways to be a blessing. Many Providence communities benefit from volunteers who come in to visit with residents, read to them, serve meals, or play cards. Or you might enjoy blessing the staff with your traditional home-baked cookies or muffins (see #2)! The idea of being a blessing may seem overwhelming at first, but many people find that serving others allows them to step outside their grief for awhile. If you’d like to give it a try, contact the Providence community nearest you:

No matter what old traditions you uphold or new ventures you try, remember that you don’t have to make the same choices next year. Some ideas will work, and some won’t, and that’s ok. Face the holidays one day at a time, and ask for help when you need it. At some point, you’ll start feeling strong enough to help someone else.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4, NIV)

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