How do you enjoy the holidays while also honoring your loss? In my experience as both a therapist and bereaved son, the holiday season can be one of the most challenging times of the year for those grieving.
Many who have experienced the death of a loved one wish they could lie down for a nap on October 30th and wake up after January 2nd. This season can be challenging when the shadow of loss is present.
The collision between the cultural expectations of happiness and the personal reality of grief can create stress, confusion, and an increase in emotional pain for those who mourn. The gatherings of family and friends during this season may shine a brighter light on the absence of the one who is no longer here.
If this is the first holiday season after the death of a loved one, there can often be a buildup of anxiety, anticipating how it will feel to be without the one who is gone. Confusion, yearning, exhaustion, sorrow, and all the other feelings that come with grief are typical during this time.
It is difficult but normal. And it is painful but normal. Grief is not a psychological abnormality or an illness to cure. Grief is about love. We grieve because we loved. Holidays may be a secure emotional connection to times of remembering that love.
Here are some tips to help you enjoy the holidays while also honoring your loss:
- Enter this season in a state of mind of “both-and” rather than “either-or.” Sorrow does not exclude all joy, and celebration does not eliminate all pain. Yet, it can be confusing to experience opposing emotions at the same time or feel your mood vacillate between light and dark.
- Joy may transition into sadness in the blink of an eye. Contentment may suddenly shift into yearning. Both experiences have value because both are part of your grief story.
- Be present in your emotions. Be present in the moments of enjoyment, and at the same time, respect your feelings of loss.
- You must be prepared to not be prepared. Most who grieve prepare themselves emotionally for those significant moments during the holidays, such as sitting down for a holiday meal or attending parties. Yet, some triggering experiences can occur when you least expect it.
- Sorrow may occur in public and that’s okay. A sight, sound, or smell may zip right past your defenses and cause an intense surge of sorrow. And sometimes, that surge may happen in public.
- Value memories and connections. We knew our loved one in a shared environment that is full of these sensory experiences that can provoke feelings of loss in an instant because of this connection created from past holiday seasons. This is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean that you’re going backward in your grief. Value these moments as meaningful connections to the one who has died.
- Prepare for putting on an act. The transition back into your work setting and your social groups after a loss can create a strain because you may have to act better than you’re feeling to appear socially appropriate. This social splitting can be exhausting. Add to that the cultural expectation of being “up” for the holidays, and the exhaustion may be compounded.
- Social Splitting is exhausting and that’s normal. This type of fatigue is standard. Monitor your energy, and be willing to moderate your social engagements, if needed. To recharge yourself from the drain of social splitting, spend ample time with those with whom you can fully be yourself and who will support you without judgment.