The holidays are once again upon us. It seems that everywhere we turn stores are decorated, houses of worship are hosting special services, music is playing, and a spirit of celebration is in the air.
For most of us, experiencing these sensations and thinking about the days to come brings back a rush of happy memories and feelings of joyful anticipation of new memories to be created with family and friends.
Yet, for those who have recently experienced the loss of a friend, partner, or other loved one, the holiday season presents special difficulties. During this time, losses precipitating from a recent death, divorce, or “present distance” are especially troubling. “Present distance” takes two forms: geographical and emotional. The former can be caused by separation due to a job assignment, military deployment, or simply by the fact that loved ones are spending this holiday with the “other side of the family” this year. Emotional distance is usually the result of a current conflict in a relationship or the result of a past estrangement. Whatever the reason, all losses have tremendous emotional impact and the effect is amplified during this season.
Grief threatens to transform the holiday season from the “Most Wonderful Time” to the “Most Dreaded Time of the Year.” It’s like getting a lump of coal in our stocking when what we really wished for a was a magic wand to be waved causing the calendar to fast-forward to January 2nd.
With no magic wand in hand, we find it necessary to do the next best thing: to simply develop a holiday survival strategy and make it through to 2018. In my experience as a griever and grief counselor, a holiday survival strategy has four steps.
The first step is to elevate the level of self-care. This relates to the basics: maintaining a healthy diet; carving out extra time to exercise; getting adequate rest, and avoiding the excessive use of mood altering substances and media. Social Media presents a special challenge during the holiday season because such platforms often present the “highlight reel” of someone else’s life. Bear in mind that you are viewing a false picture and counter the tendency to “compare your inside with the outside of another.” It might be necessary to take a break from social media this holiday season.
The second step is to lower expectations. Realize that grief is already sapping your emotional energy and carefully manage your emotional expenditures this holiday season. Not every invitation needs to be accepted. Accept the invitations you wish and have an “escape plan” if you feel the need to leave shortly after the party has started. Accept that the holidays will be different this year without the presence of your loved one, but that doesn’t mean you cannot still enjoy the season, and even find yourself smiling and laughing through the tears that will inevitably come. I have also found it useful to simply remember that another name for Thanksgiving is “Thursday.” And this year, another name for Christmas is “Monday.”
The third step is to name your loss. This can be done in a simple tangible way by setting a place at the table at the holiday meal for the lost loved one or lighting a candle in their memory. Journaling about your feelings of loneliness, sadness, envy, and anger during the season are also ways to acknowledge the loss and to process the feelings of grief. Seeking out the counsel of trusted friend, clergy, or grief counselor are also excellent ways to “give sorrow words.”
Finally, have a plan. You might find it helpful to list your typical holiday activities and ask such questions as “Did I enjoy this?” “Am I up to doing this again this year?” “How would I like to change this activity/tradition?” This will help you pare back the holiday season to a more manageable size as well as giving you a sense of personal empowerment as you approach the season.
Ultimately, remember that your goal this holiday season has been radically altered by your loss. In the past, the goal was to have a “Happy Holiday.” Loss transforms our goal from “Happy” to “Healthy and Whole.” That is my wish for you and a goal worth celebrating.
Phil Hohulin, DMin, is a grief counselor with the Hospice of the Miami Valley. The Hospice of the Miami Valley offers grief counseling to the community free of charge.