The holidays are a time when family and friends traditionally gather to celebrate the season, which can bring with it a heightened sense of grief. Memories of a lost loved one or knowing it might be the last holidays with a loved one can interfere with the joy of the holidays, making it hard to look forward to or participate in the spirit of the season. Holiday grief can enhance the sense of loss and be a painful reminder of days gone by or days to come, manifesting in depression, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, withdrawal, and lack of interest or energy. If you or someone you know is coping with holiday grief, it is first important to know that this is normal, and second, it will ease with time.
Hospice professionals are a great source of support during the holidays. Every member of the hospice team is well-trained in patient and family support during these times, and bereavement counselors are specifically skilled in helping patients and families navigate the process of grieving. They understand the deep or enhanced feelings of loss that are associated with the holidays.
For individuals who are experiencing grief during the holidays, Vitas Hospice offers the following tips for self-care:
Set realistic expectations for yourself. Remind yourself that this year is different. Decide if you can still handle the responsibilities you’ve had in the past. Examine the tasks and events of celebrating and ask yourself if you want to continue them. Take others up on offers to cook, shop, decorate, etc. Consider shopping by phone, Internet or catalogs this year.
Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Share your plans with family and friends and let them know of any intended changes in 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 don’t isolate yourself. Allow yourself some time for solitude, remembering and grieving, but balance it with planned activities with others.
Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, and anger – allow yourself to grieve. It is important to recognize that every family member has his/her own unique grief experience and may have different needs related to celebrating the holidays. No one way is right or wrong. Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
Draw comfort from doing for others. Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of you 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. Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate your mood. Try to avoid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Physical exercise is often an antidote for depression. Writing in a journal can be a good outlet for 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.
[Written with permission from Vitas Hospice]
For tips on helping someone else deal with grief during the holidays, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) offers the following suggestions from hospice professionals:
- Be supportive of the way the person chooses to handle the holidays. Some may wish to follow traditions; others may choose to avoid customs of the past and do something new. It’s okay to do things differently.
- Offer to help the person with decorating or holiday baking. Both tasks can be overwhelming for someone who is grieving.
- Offer to help with holiday shopping. Share catalogs or online shopping sites that may be helpful.
- Invite the person to join you or your family during the holidays. You might invite them to join you for a religious service or at a holiday meal where they are a guest.
- Ask the person if he or she is interested in volunteering with you during the holidays.Doing something for someone else, such as helping at a soup kitchen or working with children, may help your loved one feel better about the holidays.
- Donate a gift or money in memory of the person’s loved one. Remind the person that his or her loved one is not forgotten.
- Never tell someone that he or she should be “over it.” Instead, give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.
- Be willing to listen. Active listening from friends and family is an important step to helping some cope with grief and heal.
- Remind the person that you are thinking of him or her and the loved one who died.Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch.
- Follow up after the holidays to check in. Given the activity of the season, some people may make it through the holidays without any issues but they might find the post-holiday period to be more difficult. So checking in after the holidays to see how he or she may be doing is helpful.
In general, the best way to help those who are grieving during the holidays is to let them know you care and that their loved one is not forgotten.