As 2018 draws to a close, we hold in our hearts all of you who have experienced the loss of a loved one, whether recent or in the past. We know that holidays and special celebrations are particularly difficult when you are grieving. This article, written for ehospice by bereavement care expert Robin Fiorelli, was first published in 2013 but her tips and suggestions are still relevant. May the memories of your loved ones sustain you through this difficult time and remind you that love never ends. We will be taking a break from posting articles over the next few weeks and would like to wish all our readers a blessed Christmas and a joyful and prosperous New Year.
Coping with grief during the holidays
The holiday season can be very difficult for people who have experienced the death of a loved one. Memories of good times and togetherness serve as reminders of our loss. Watching others who are feeling thankful and are celebrating with their loved ones when we feel overwhelmed, lonely or sad can be very painful. Holidays force us to realise how much our lives have been changed by the loss of our loved one. Particularly in the first year, many bereaved are left with having to develop new holiday rituals and traditions.
The first step in coping with grief at the holidays is to acknowledge that the first holiday season is difficult and then to prepare for it in advance by making specific plans and obtaining the support that you need. Sometimes anticipation of a holiday can be more difficult than the arrival of the day itself.
Tips for coping with grief during the holidays
Set realistic expectations for yourself. Remind yourself that this year will be different. Decide if you can still handle the responsibilities you’ve had in the past. Examine the tasks and events around celebrating the holidays and ask yourself if you want to continue doing them. Accept help to cook, shop, decorate, etc. Consider shopping online this year.
Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Share your plans with family and friends and let then know of any intended changes in your holiday routine. Memories can sometimes be a source of comfort to the bereaved. Share your memories with others of holidays spent with your loved one by telling stories and looking at photo albums.
Try to avoid “canceling” the holiday despite the temptation. It is OK to avoid some circumstances that you don’t feel ready to handle, but avoid completely isolating yourself. Allow yourself some time for solitude, remembering and grieving, but balance it with planned activities with others.
Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness or anger – allow yourself to grieve. It is important to recognize that every family member has their own unique grief experience and may have different needs related to celebrating the holidays. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
Draw comfort from helping others. Consider making a donation in memory of your loved one. Invite a guest who might otherwise be alone for the holidays. Adopt a needy family during the holiday season.
Take Care of Yourself. Try to avoid the “hustle bustle” of the holiday season. Endorphins from physical exercise can help against depression. Writing in a journal can be a good outlet to express your grief. Buy yourself something frivolous that you always wanted but never allowed yourself to indulge in.
Create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your current situation. Some people find comfort in the old traditions. Others find them unbearably painful. Discuss with your family the activities you want to include or exclude this year. Some examples of new rituals and traditions include:
- Announce beforehand that someone different will carve the turkey this year.
- Create a memory box filled with photos of your loved one or written memory notes from family members and friends. Young children could include their drawings in the memory box.
- Make a decorative quilt using your loved one’s favorite colors, symbols or images.
- Light a candle in honor of your loved one.
- Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
- Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
- Have a moment of silence during a holiday toast to honor your loved one.
- Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.
- Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one.
- Write a poem about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.
- Play your loved one’s favorite music or play their favorite game.
The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one, and that the best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, get support from others, and take it easy.
Robin Fiorelli is Senior Director of Bereavement and Volunteer Services at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care, the nation’s leading provider of end-of-life care. For more information on VITAS, please visit www.VITAS.com or call 1-866-41-VITAS.