The loss of a Loved One

Grieving During the Holidays

Grieving during the Holidays is difficult. Especially the first Holiday cycle after the passing of a loved one.

Whatever your age, whatever the cause of death, holidays lived in the absence of a Loved One can be a very difficult time. Customary routines are ended, never to be repeated in quite the same way. Easy-going laughter, once flowing so naturally, may become awkward or even altogether missing. Gift-giving, once so filled with fun, may seem somehow empty and sad. Familiar songs, once so comforting, may catch in your throat or bring tears to your eyes.

All this happens against a backdrop of significant questions you may find yourself asking: What exactly is happening to me? Can I possibly survive this, and do I even want to? How long will this turmoil last? Is what I am feeling normal? Am I losing touch with my sanity?

The holiday period itself adds its own share of questions: How can I make it through all the events of the holidays while missing so desperately the one I love? Would I be better off to ignore the holidays this year? Should I act as if everything were normal? Should I make major changes in my holiday rituals?

If you're like most people in grief, you will have many questions. It's important for you to know at the outset that are few universal "right" and "wrong" answers. There may be various answers, depending upon the unique factors of your situation: who you are as a person, what your family is like, who it was who died, when and how they died, what your relationship with the departed was, and the role that person played in your holiday rituals, to name only a few. It's also important to remember that not all your questions will have ready answers. Sometimes you must learn by doing, and then learn even better by trying it another way.

Keeping in mind there has never been a loss precisely like yours, there are still some general guidelines bereaved people have found helpful through the years. I will propose twelve of them. I hope you will treat them as suggestions rather than as prescriptions. Use them as ideas you can expand upon. Shape them to fit your distinct circumstances and to serve your personal needs. Above all else, remember that others, many others, have faced something similar to what you're facing right now. They have learned what it is like to endure and to survive and often even to grow through their experience. What they have learned is what you can learn, too. The ways they have persevered are ways you can adopt as well.

Most of all, I hope you'll choose to believe this: your holidays can still be a significant time for you. They will be different, but they can still be meaningful. They may hurt, but they can also hold hope -- even great hope.

1. Accept the likelihood of your pain.

When you're facing your first holiday without the one who has been so close to you, a good starting point is with this awareness: chances are it will be a painful time. You may wonder how you will ever make it through.

This may or may not comfort you, but it is true: your pain is a sign you have been blessed to draw very close to another. You have loved and you have been loved. The hurt you feel is an indication of your wonderful humanness, your sensitivity, your openness. It is a proof that another has touched you deeply, even as you have touched them. While you may wish you did not hurt as much as you do, you dare not forget that your pain is none other than the result of your joy.

Even so, you may feel you would like to bypass the entire holiday period and not participate in it at all. That's a common response. During the final two months of the calendar year, however, holiday reminders are visible almost everywhere you look and audible in almost everything you hear. It's impossible to avoid the impact of this season. The energy you would spend evading what is going on all around you will be more creatively spent adapting to the reality of what this particular season holds for you.

Similarly, it is probably unwise to pretend everything is perfectly normal, and that this year's festivities will be no different than any other year's. The death of this important person in your life has created a conspicuous void. You may feel that, of course, any time of the year. But this is especially the case during the holidays. You expect to include those you love in our holiday celebrations -- with the cards you write, the gifts you give, the meals you share, the rituals you re-enact.

The Loved One who has died, however, cannot be included, at least in the way you wish. And you're reminded of this time after time in the way families are portrayed on television, in the way loved ones are referred to in holiday songs, in the idealistic images everyone carries inside about these special times.

Remember this: few holidays are as picture-perfect as we'd like to believe. It may help to admit that from the start.

It is equally important not to decide in advance that the approaching holidays will necessarily be horrendous. While it may have its difficult moments, the approaching holiday time does not have to be an absolute catastrophe. More often than not, people report that the experience itself did not turn out to be as trying as they feared. Chances are good that can be your experience, too. Yes, you will probably feel pain. Yes, you may wish this year's calendar would skip over November and December. But, no, it does not have to be awful. There are things you can do to help.

2. Feel whatever it is you feel.

You may be learning what many others have learned: some people will try to hurry you through your grief. Some may insist on continually cheering you up. Others may give you advice about what you should and shouldn't do or how you should and shouldn't feel.

Whatever else you do this holiday time, do your best to claim your own feelings.

As much as you are able, own up to the fact that something terribly important has happened in your life, that this naturally causes a reaction within you. You're not a robot -- you're a responsive human being who is capable of all sorts of emotions.

No one else will feel what you do, in the same way, at the same time, with the same intensity. But some of the general feelings people in your situation often report include these:

  • Sadness. It's sad to think about what you've lost, what can never happen again, what you'll have to learn to live without. It's doubly sad to experience this at such a happy time of the year.
  • Depression. More than feeling glum, you may feel desolate or despairing. You may feel depleted of all energy, listless and alone. You may find doubt you'll ever feel any better.
  • Anxiety. You may feel nervous and jittery, ill at ease and full of uncertainty.
  • Fear. You may be afraid of how you'll cope, what you'll do, even if you'll survive.
  • Anger. Being mad is a common response -- mad at people who don't understand you or support you, angry about how the death happened and who was involved, even provoked at the Loved One who died. You may be upset with yourself, or with God, or with the whole world.
  • Guilt. You may dwell upon what you did or didn't do while the Loved One was alive. You may feel guilty you're living or that you have moments of happiness in the midst of your grief.
  • Apathy. You may find that you experience almost no feelings at all. You may feel numb and impassive. Or you may feel confused and disoriented.

There are many other feelings, of course: relief, respect, pride, joy, compassion, and love all come to mind as well. Whatever it is you're feeling these days, remind yourself that feelings are normal, whatever they happen to be. They're a sign that you're human, that you care deeply, and that whatever you feel today, you can feel differently tomorrow.

Your feelings seldom lead you astray. They usually lead you to yourself.

3. Take charge where you can.

There is much in your life, of course, that has moved beyond your command. The loss you've experienced and the resulting inescapable changes have robbed you of a power you may have taken for granted. Yet there are some actions you can take and some decisions you can make that are within your authority. Begin to take control of your life in specific ways, even if those ways seem small.

If the death you've experienced isn't too recent, this may be a good time to evaluate the holiday traditions you've established through the years. Which ones are meaningful, ones you want to keep? Which ones have outgrown their usefulness? Which ones might you forego for a year or two, and which ones are so important to you that you must perform them, even if it's hard to do? Which ones can you adapt to fit this year's circumstances?

Generally speaking, this is usually not the best time to make drastic changes, like starting life over in a new town, or celebrating the holidays in a faraway place among people who do not appreciate what has happened to you. But some changes can be healthy and even important to make. It might make sense to change your holiday meal routine, by dining out at a restaurant rather than at home, or by having the main meal in another's home. Changes might be made in how holiday decorations are done. Or how gifts are given out, or when, or where. Consider designing new rituals -- ones that will include opportunities to remember the past while acknowledging that the present has changed.

Keep in mind there are other ways for you to assume some control over your life. Eating healthful and drinking wisely is a good start. Maintain your exercise program, or begin one if you've not been in the habit. Research has demonstrated this will help you feel better, mentally as well as physically. A brisk walk each day is one of the best exercises you can perform, especially if you can do it out of doors. Consult your physician if you have any questions.

Another action you can take is to try to get your proper amount of sleep. Go to bed early enough to get the rest you need. If you're sleeping too much, limit your time in bed. It's not unusual, however, for your sleep patterns to change for awhile, even a long while.

In general, choose life in all the ways you can. Be among people who offer you vitality. Practice those disciplines that bring you energy. Do those things that give you satisfaction. Take charge in little ways and you'll find they're not so little -- they're important.

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Adapted from the writings of Jim Miller, author of What Will Help Me: 12 Things to Remember When You Have Suffered a Loss. and How Can I Help?