Grief is a heart -wrenching experience at any time of the year. But the winter holidays come with special challenges for grievers. There are the many social pressures of the season, like the call to be joyous and thankful. Chances are good that if you’re grieving you’re not going to feel joyous or thankful. This is okay, no matter what others may tell you. Grieving is the natural and normal reaction to loss. And all the feelings that come with grief are normal to this very human experience. No one grieves the same way as somebody else. There is no prescribed length of time for grief to last. Nor can grief be subjugated by the calendar. Holidays are about rituals, religious rituals, family traditions, special meals, and annual events. Grief changes things, the way we feel, the way we think about life, and the way we do things. Frequently, grievers find themselves in conflict between their rituals / traditions and their grief. It’s okay to do things differently. And it’s okay to incorporate your grief into your traditions, or to create new traditions. Set a place for the one who’s not going to be at the table. Raise a glass, tell stories, take a trip, most of all do the holidays in a way that feels right.
This is also the time of year that comes with a great deal of pressure to be social — and many grievers don’t feel particularly social. The holidays can bring about intense feelings of loneliness. Just being around others can make the longing unbearable. Deciding to go or not go can be a difficult process. In the end, the decision to attend should be based on the griever’s comfort about the event. How much support do you feel from the other guests? How much energy do you have for the event, and how isolated have you been lately? Remember, you can always leave early.
Balance is the key to grieving and getting through the holidays. Grieving is hard; it hurts, and takes a lot out of a griever. Self-care is essential. It’s fine to not attend some things, but it’s not good to isolate and not participate at all. It’s fine not to celebrate or even skip a year or two, but it’s unhealthy not acknowledging the loss. It’s also not healthy to distract yourself by over-working, or compulsively shopping. And, of course, food and drink should always be taken in moderation.
Another word about holiday socializing: it’s common, especially with holiday social gatherings, that the topic of the loss becomes the white elephant in the room. Everyone steps around the obvious in hopes of not making things awkward. Sometimes the griever makes it a point to avoid the topic, not wanting to burden others. Most often, however, people avoid talking about the loss because they don’t know what to say. Other times people will speak in clichés, trying to find something to say. “You just need to move on;” “It’s for the best, he / she is in a better place;” “There’s plenty of fish in sea;” “I know just how you feel.” These are just some of the stock phrases that well-meaning people say to be helpful but are hurtful to grievers.
So what is helpful? Listening without making judgment or giving asked-for advice is the best way to be helpful. Our society is woefully deficient when it comes to coping with sadness and grief. We’re taught to intellectualize and rationalize the emotional events of our lives. Second-best advice for helping grievers: Give them their feelings and feel your own. Allow grievers to feel sad, lonely, and miserable. Don’t try to say things to make them feel better, it won’t work. And don’t avoid talking about it because you don’t want to remind them of their loss; they haven’t forgotten. The holidays can bring wonderful opportunities to celebrate lost relationships by telling stories and anecdotes, creating or changing traditions, and memorializing the loss in an infinite number of ways. These are but a few possibilities to strengthen our emotional and spiritual relationships while positively integrating the loss into our life.