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Grief and the Holiday Season
Brent Richter, MA, LPC
How can we celebrate and enjoy the upcoming holiday season-- is that even possible or conceivable? Is it beyond comprehension? How can we approach this season of celebration, family gatherings, lifelong rituals and holiday traditions and still honor our loved one? I have some suggestions. First, eliminate the “shoulds”; a ‘should’ is a duty or obligation to act or behave in a certain manner--this will be hard as this will be a different season; give yourself permission to ignore the “should” because trying to meet expectations (our own or those of others) based upon previous experiences is not realistic, or even possible given your loss. Second, do what you need to get through the difficult days---give yourself time to settle in, acknowledge, and respond to the myriad of feelings, emotions, and reactions that each new experience brings.
The first year of your loss can be overwhelming as you realize what is lost; and each new experience without your loved one presents new reasons to grieve – the missed birthday, the shared anniversary, the annual vacation, and the missed holidays and family gatherings; each milestone exposes raw emotions just as if it were the first day of the loss. Whether it is making cookies, burning fudge, having dinner, wrapping presents, decorating the house, or writing and addressing holiday cards – every family or relationship has uniquely shared traditions and rituals and perhaps your loved one was the center, instigator, and/or organizer of those traditions. It may be too early for some of you, and that’s understandable--the whirlwind of your loss may have not fully settled in; for others you may just be starting to think of some of these times and holiday rituals; some of you may have muddled through or ‘survived’ that first year of ‘firsts’; and others may well be into years of dealing with the loss and have found ways to integrate your loved ones death into new familial traditions. Others may continue to still struggle.
I don’t believe we ever ‘get over’ our loss, because I don’t see my walk with grief moving toward being cured. Personally, I don’t want to be cured – I want to fondly remember my friends and family that have been lost and to remember those happy times; but unfortunately I think it’s necessary to recognize and gauge the sad memories against those fond or happy memories because they are woven into the fabric of our shared experiences.I’ve learned through my education, training, and the many people I’ve been honored to counsel and chat with, that experiencing a loss and the inevitable grief changes you forever. It I think it’s imperative that you question, search for answers, grieve with others, and share your thoughts, memories, experiences, and feelings about your loss and how your life has changed--do this for yourself and for others because sharing, grieving, and crying gives your family and friends permission to share, grieve, and cry with you.
Grieving during the holidays is especially difficult and it necessitates extra care and attention. Grieving is never something you can do passively – you can try and ‘stuff’ it, but eventually it will surface. It will rise when you are the most vulnerable, at your weakest and when you are in your greatest need for support. When we don’t attend to our grief and loss the cost can be high, we risk an influx of despair, loneliness, and/or sense of being overwhelmed and that can make us feel like what we are experiencing is insurmountable.
When I speak of paying attention to yourself and giving yourself permission to grieve, I’d like you to think of BEING INTENTIONAL ABOUT YOUR GRIEF. What that means is----Open Up! It might be a bit strange for a grief therapist to admit this but, I can’t make it right for you. I can’t take away your pain or the hurt of others, just like you can’t take away the pain of others – but together we can lend a purposeful ear and a caring heart which is really what heals. By sharing your loss, telling the story of your loved one until you don’t need to tell it anymore is what heals, watching as your story is heard, being understood and seeing the concern of others continues the integrative process.
It is especially important as you proceed into the upcoming holiday season that you try and maintain those important traditions and rituals. I suggest you set a place for your loved one, talk openly, and suggest others share stories – inviting the memory of your loved one into your celebration allows you to begin (or continue) the process of accepting what it is, and what it will be like, without them. If it’s too difficult or hard to invite them in, then think about creating a new tradition or holiday ritual – one that may honor what they stood for. It is possible to celebrate the holiday season, but realize that you will be celebrating it differently than previous years, and that’s OK.
Brent Richter, MA is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Maple Grove, Minnesota. He specializes in working with emergency responders and survivors of traumatic loss and their families. He is a volunteer speaker and educator working with Minnesota’s for Safe Driving in their Bereavement Support outreach.
Coping with the Holidays
You now face the holidays and someone you love has been killed. At this time of year, intact families are everywhere – on television, in magazine ads, and on holiday cards, joyfully celebrating with each other. You may feel swallowed in grief as you face a very empty chair at your table. The following suggestions may help you cope.
1. Change traditions. Have holiday meals and get-togethers at a different house or a different time this year. The more you try to make it the same as it was before, the more obvious your loved one’s absence will be.
2. Go away if you feel you will be devastated by staying home. But remember that Christmas is celebrated the world over, so you can’t fully escape. You will probably do better by facing your pain and being near the people who love you.
3. Balance solitude with sociability. Solitude can renew strength. Being with people you care about is equally important. Plan to attend some holiday parties, musicals or plays. You may surprise yourself by enjoying it.
4. Relive the happy memories. Pick three special memories of holidays past with your loved one. Think of them often – especially if grief spasms seem to pop up at an inappropriate time.
5. Set aside "letting go" time. Set aside on your calendar special times during the holiday season when you can be alone and grieve. When you know you will have these special times, you can more easily postpone your flow of grief in public.
6. Counter the conspiracy of silence. Because family and friends love you, they will think they're doing you a favor by not mentioning your loved one (so you won't get upset). Break the ice by mentioning your loved one. Openly state it is important for you to talk about your loved one during the holiday season when he/she is so much on your mind.
7. Try not to "awful-size." It is tempting to conclude that life is "awful" during the holidays. Yes, you will have some difficult times - but you can also experience some joy. Experiencing joy in giving and receiving does not mean that you have forgotten your loved one or that you love him or her any less.
8. Find a creative outlet. Write a memorial poem or story about your loved one and share it. Contribute to a group your loved one would have supported. Use the money you would have spent for a gift for your loved one to buy something for someone he or she cared about.
9. Don't forget the rest of your family. Especially try to make it a good holiday for the children. Listen to them. Talk to them. Celebrate with them. If decorating the tree or buying gifts is impossible, ask a friend to do it for you this year.
10. Take Charge. Plan ahead how you will handle issues such as; whether to hang your loved ones holiday stocking, whether or not to attend religious services, who you will depend on for support.
YOU CAN'T CHANGE THE PAST. YOU CAN HOWEVER, TAKE CHARGE OF THE PRESENT.
TOTAL RECOVERY MAY NEVER COME. BUT WHAT YOU KINDLE FROM THE ASHES OF YOUR TRAGEDY IS LARGELY UP TO YOU.
A Christmas Memorial
For Families dealing with a loss
An advent wreath is a traditional part of Christmas in most homes. As you light each candle this year you may create a new ritual which will become a lasting tradition for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
AS WE LIGHT THESE FOUR CANDLES IN HONOR OF YOU, WE LIGHT ONE FOR OUR GRIEF, ONE FOR OUR MEMORIES, ONE FOR OUR COURAGE, AND ONE FOR OUR LOVE.
THIS CANDLE REPRESENTS OUR GRIEF. THE PAIN OF LOSING YOU IS INTENSE. IT REMINDS US OF THE DEPTH OF OUR LOVE FOR YOU.
THIS CANDLE REPRESENTS OUR COURAGE TO CONFRONT OUR SORROW, TO COMFORT EACH OTHER AND TO CHANGE OUR LIVES.
THIS LIGHT IS IN YOUR MEMORY; THE TIMES WE LAUGHED, THE TIMES WE CRIED, THE TIMES WE WERE ANGRY WITH EACH OTHER, THE SILLY THINGS YOU DID AND THE CARING AND JOY YOU GAVE US.
THIS LIGHT IS THE LIGHT OF LOVE. AS WE ENTER THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, DAY BY DAY WE CHERISH THE SPECIAL PLACE IN OUR HEARTS THAT WILL ALWAYS BE RESERVED FOR YOU. WE THANK YOU FOR THE GIFT YOUR LIVING BROUGH TO EACH OF US. WE LOVE YOU.