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Grief and Surviving The Holidays

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

It's Christmas time, and houses are strung with lights twinkling like the stars in the night sky. The scent of pine needles and hot cocoa is wafting through the air. Everyone seems to be happy and full of holiday cheer, yet you feel alone, and your heart has lost its sparkle.

Holidays are challenging when grieving the loss of someone. There's an empty seat at the table and a huge space in your heart. As the season's festivities begin, you may find that your feelings of loss are heightened and your feelings of celebrating diminished.

What used to bring you joy this time of year may trigger you to experience extreme sadness, anger, and even guilt. Or maybe you feel nothing at all. And that's okay. It's normal for life to feel like the world has been flipped upside down and that everything around you is happening in a blur. With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it is important that you be gentle with yourself; grief is hard and exhausting.

Make sure to give yourself space and time for all the emotions that may come. Know that your emotions will be all over the map this holiday season. If you need to share your feelings, you can start a journal, call a friend, or go to a grief group with others experiencing the same. Or consider seeing a counsellor; this might be the time to seek professional help. We aren't meant to do hard things all alone.

It's okay to lose your sparkle this year and feel deeply sad inside. Give yourself permission to feel those emotions. As much as you may want to bottle it up, don't. Sometimes we need to be alone and have a good old-fashioned, snotty nose cry.

Did you know that crying releases toxins, helps you to self-soothe, resets your nervous system, releases feel-good chemicals that ease emotional pain, and restores emotional balance? So if you have 500 tears to cry, don't stop at 250. Let them all out. Some people worry that once they start, they won't be able to stop. If that's your worry, set a timer for the amount of time you feel is appropriate. Have a good cry and once the timer goes off, get up and move your body, go for a walk, or call a friend.

And ... Also, know it's okay to be happy and enjoy the holidays. We can be both happy and sad when grieving. It's okay to smile when you are happy, laugh when something is funny, and don't feel guilty about it. It doesn't mean that you have forgotten your loved one or are being disrespectful. Living life is a beautiful way to honour your loved one.

Everyone knows this time of year comes with a lot of pressure, especially when experiencing grief. You may feel pressure to put on a brave face and be strong for others, making your grief take a back seat. Instead, practice self-compassion, put your needs first and prioritize your grief and mental well-being. You are not being selfish; you are trying to survive.

You may find that those around you just don't understand the depths of your grief. In trying to make you feel better, their words make you feel worse. Sometimes they tell you that it's time to move on. Or that your loved one wouldn't want you to be sad, especially during the holidays. As a result, you do the opposite of what you would really like. You speak less about your loved one, burying your loss deep inside, causing your sadness and feelings of loneliness and isolation to grow.

So this year, give yourself permission to only do what you want to do and to be with who you want to be. It may bring comfort to keep things the same, or you may want to change things. Remember, you can always change it again next year. It's okay to not do anything that does not serve your soul and grief or skip holiday events if you feel overloaded and overwhelmed. Prioritize what is important to you. Make a list and rank those things from most important to least important. And do the ones at the top of the list. It's okay to not do everything. Don't feel guilty.

However, if you choose to go to an event, go with a plan; don't get trapped. If you are up to it, drive yourself and leave if it gets too much. Or if you go with someone, create a code word to indicate to them that things are getting too much and you need to leave. And, know all of this can change from one moment to the next. It's okay to change your mind over and over during any get-together, event or party. You may not know what you can or cannot handle until that moment.

Communication with the people around you can also be challenging. It is okay, to be honest. Let them know you are not feeling merry, cheerful or festive. Let them know what you do or don't want to do. Also, decide what you do or don't want to talk about and think of some ideas to divert the conversation if necessary. We all know that the inevitable question of "how are you doing" will come up, and it's good to have some ideas ready. People really have no idea....and while we would really like to say, "I'm doing crappy, thanks," that is not what we say and feel obligated to dive into our discomfort. You don't have to. It's okay to say, "I'm really not up for talking about this," Or even simply say, "I'm fine," and redirect the conversation. Oh ... And ignore the people who want to tell you what you should be doing; they aren't you, and they aren't experiencing your grief.

Just like Santa, make a list and check it twice. Unfortunately, our brains don't always work well when experiencing grief. Ask for or say yes to help. Everyone needs a little help sometimes, and sometimes it can help those around us feel like they are doing something. Let them pick up groceries or even vacuum your house. But make sure to identify those who will be helpful and who may not, AND choose the helpful ones.

Decide on the traditions you want to keep or change or create new traditions you might want to start in memory of your loved one this year. It's okay to change traditions. Traditions are supposed to bring comfort, not distress. And if they don't work out as you imagined, you can always change them again next year or bring back the ones you miss. Remember your loved one in a way that is meaningful to you. Here are a few suggestions…

  • Mark the memory of the person by doing something special, like lighting a candle or writing a Christmas card to them.

  • Pull out old photo albums and reminisce. OR Create a holiday montage of past holiday photos.

  • Create a memory box or a memory stocking. Write a treasured memory and place them inside. You can invite others to share a memory or just keep it to yourself.

  • Cook your loved one's favourite foods

  • Visit your loved one's gravesite or a special place you associate with them, and leave a meaningful holiday item.

  • Send holiday cards to people you have lost touch with. Or don't send any at all.

  • Play your loved one's favourite holiday music

  • Light a candle and leave a place at the table for them OR if that is too depressing, invite someone to join your table.

  • Seek gratitude, look for the little things

  • Send gifts or don't send gifts.. gift giving can be stressful, talk with your family and come up with a plan.

  • Skip or minimize decorations

  • Make a donation in their memory OR buy a gift and donate it.

  • Make a memorial ornament.

  • Watch your loved one's favourite holiday movies.

  • Stressed about holiday cooking, go out, order in...

  • Have a moment of silent reflection for your loved one

  • Splurge on a gift for you

  • Make a quiet corner of a room into a space for people to go if they want a few minutes to think about the person who has died. This corner could have their photo, a candle, and perhaps a soft blanket.

Finally, in all the hustle and bustle of the season, remember to take care of yourself. There maybe be times when you need a reminder to eat, sleep (even just a quiet moment works too), brush your teeth or even shower. AND That's okay. And while overindulging may be normal for the holiday season, remember that it can lead to you feeling even worse afterward. So remember to watch your food and alcohol intake. Instead, indulge in other ways, play music, get outside, drink lots of water, find some quiet time, meditate, journal, or do something you find soothing, like cuddling up with your pet.

While going through this Christmas season without your loved one won't be easy, you can get through it. It's okay to skip holiday events if you feel overloaded and overwhelmed.

Know that there is always next year to try things differently. Remember, everyone grieves differently. Just as every snowflake is different, so is grief.

Know you are not alone. Many just like you have feelings of a deep sense of loss, and many of us honoured to support you. This holiday season is about you and remembering your loved one. So find what feels best for you and honouring your loved one and reach out for support if you feel it would help.

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