If I asked you how many seasons are in a year, you would probably say, “Oh that’s easy—there are four: winter, spring, summer, and fall.” Hmm…only four seasons? I beg to differ, especially around this time of year, when it is difficult to cope with grief during the holidays. It is often referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year,” when traditions abound and joy fills the air.
But what if you’re not feeling joyful? For many people struggling with a loss, this time of year can be a lot more difficult and stressful. In my role as a grief counselor, this tends to be the main topic of our meetings as the year ends.
Clients ask me, “Do I keep things the same and pretend everything is normal? Do I do nothing? What should I do?” Many struggle with not wanting to be a ‘scrooge’ or ‘Debbie Downer’ when it comes to celebrations. Others will say, “I just wish I could sleep through the whole day.” This speaks to the pain, loss and struggle they’re experiencing.
It’s helpful to recognize that a holiday is only 24 hours in length. What you choose to do with those 24 hours is mostly up to you.
Here are a few ideas for how to cope with grief during the holidays:
Plan, plan, plan!
This is often the most helpful advice I can give to someone as a holiday approaches. Start with ‘Plan A’ but also have a ‘Plan B’ in case your first idea for coping does not work out the way you had intended. Rather than ride with other family members to the traditional family celebration, you may choose to drive yourself so you can leave if things get too overwhelming. Or, you could plan to arrive just in time for dinner or dessert. You may even decide to skip it all and go on a cruise! Having a plan gives you more control over an unexpected situation.
Communicate and listen
Remember that others can’t read your mind. It’s important to communicate your plans and needs and ask for help. Let people know that this may be a difficult day for you and that if you need to leave an event early or choose not to come, it’s not because of them but because of your grief and the difficulty you are experiencing. Don’t be surprised if they try to cheer you up, and recognize that they only want what is best for you, even though it may not be what you need at the time. Recognize as well that you need to listen to what others need if they are also grieving. Compromise may be a part of the process.
Find new approaches to gift giving
Gift giving can be another stressor, but it doesn’t have to be. Some people find it feels good to give to others. If you find it too difficult to walk into a store where decorations and music can trigger intense reactions, you can shop online. Perhaps you want to donate to a charity or organization in honor of a loved one. Some bereaved find it helpful to give personal items in memory of their special person. This could be a photo, clothing, piece of jewelry or other item that belonged to that person while they were living. Don’t be surprised if there are tears that accompany a gift like this. Tears are not bad—they simply mean “I miss you, and I love you,” and this item will most likely become a treasure to the gift recipient.
Create meaningful rituals
Some find it helpful to visit a gravesite or cemetery on a holiday. Others may not. Making time to reflect on your loss, whether in silence, with others, in public or in private, can be a powerful way to recognize the impact your loved one had on your life. This can be as simple as saying “thank you,” giving a toast, or performing random acts of kindness. When you take a moment to brainstorm, you can come up with many possibilities, even some you may want to continue on days other than holidays.
Be gentle with yourself
There are many other ways to make the holidays more hopeful as you grieve. Be gentle and patient with yourself and others. This might be the best gift you can give yourself this year.
Connect with others who are grieving
Know that you’re not alone. Many people all over the world are grieving. If you can connect with a friend or loved one, great. But if not, reach out to a hotline or online support group, or start a journal. Gilchrist is available to support you at any time throughout the year through grief counseling, support groups and bereavement events.
Whatever way you choose to spend the holidays this year does not mean you need to celebrate this way every year. Think of it as a Band-Aid or an experiment in how to just get by. If your coping strategies work, then you have a place to start next year. If not, you can change or modify your plans in the future.
To learn about ways Gilchrist Grief Counseling can support you, visit gilchristcares.org/grief-counseling.