By Dave Roberts
The pain of grief tends to surface with great intensity during “milestone” events such as, birthdays, death dates or angelversaries and holidays.
The intensity of grief is usually highest for many during the first year. However, individuals will experience pain of varying intensity during these milestone events beyond the first year. There is no timetable to resolve grief and in many cases; journeys are lifelong. Experiencing emotional pain and yearning for the presence of our loved ones at any time during grief is to be expected.
Under normal circumstances, preparing for any holiday can be stressful as well as tiring. When a loved one dies, completing these holiday tasks become complicated by the intense pain of grief, and the changes that accompany it.
Our grief may be so painful that we question whether to celebrate the holidays at all. We may also experience challenges as to which traditions to keep or which ones to change or eliminate.
We may also struggle with ways to keep our deceased loved ones’ memories alive and the reactions from others who may not understand our pain.
The anticipation of the holiday season and the days leading up to it may be more stressful than the actual day. Also, if there are certain holiday functions that you don’t feel ready to confront, it is ok to avoid them. We need to be empowered to take care of ourselves during challenging times.
Preparing for The Holidays
Though there are no sure solutions as to how to prepare for the holidays, here are some things that may be helpful:
Read books or articles on grief. I found these activities to be particularly helpful in the early phase of my grief following the death of my 18-year-old daughter Jeannine in March of 2003. However, depending on your physical energy and ability to concentrate, you might only be able to read a little at a time, or simply a part of a book or article that resonates with you.
Lack of energy and inability to concentrate for long periods of time are normal physical and cognitive reactions in the early phase of grief.
Attend a lecture on coping with the holidays. Your local Hospice and/or funeral homes may host or sponsor this event.
Identify strengths or strategies that helped you adjust to previous losses in your life. These may be losses related to death or losses not related to death (e.g., divorce).
Try to develop as much support from family and friends as you can. Tell them that the holidays may be emotionally and physically draining for you, and how they can best help you during this time.
Don’t suppress sadness or anger; these are normal emotions experienced after the death of a loved one.
Be mindful of the using alcohol and medications, either separately or together.
Delegate! Let others share the workload by preparing food and helping with decorations.
If you aren’t up to a large family affair, have a scaled down gathering with a few close family members and friends.
Here are some suggestions to help you keep the memories of your loved ones alive, during the holiday season (and all-year round)
Hang a stocking for your loved one. It can hold small gifts from him or her (shopping done by you) to each family member.
At a family gathering, place a decorated box or basket near the door. As people arrive, ask them to write a remembrance on a piece of paper and leave it there. At some point during the day, read those remembrances. It can comfort you and encourage others to share remembrances as well.
Get out a box of pictures and start looking at them. People will not be able to resist making comments and sharing stories.
Carve out some quiet time (preferably early morning) Burn some incense and listen to some music that you or your loved one enjoyed. Quietly say their name. You may sense their presence or experience a feeling of peace.
Others may have difficulty saying the name of your loved one for fear of upsetting you or because they are uncomfortable with their own feelings. You may decide to initiate the discussion of your loved one and may be hesitant to do so because it may be very painful. That is completely understandable, but the pain may be lessened or replaced by joy due to some wonderful shared memories.
After the holidays have concluded, take some time to reflect on your own or with the help of others, progress that you made. In early grief, progress may be measured simply in your ability to survive the stress of the holidays without the physical presence of your loved one. You may have also discovered that you experienced more moments of joy during this holiday season, then in previous ones. Or you might have discovered that a sign that you received from your deceased loved one is a reminder of what you have gained, rather than what you have lost.
Any movement forward through grief should be honored as a sign of our resilience and hope that we can embrace a different perspective following the death of our loved ones.
The majority of the content of this essay is from Mourning Discoveries: A guide to help families navigate through grief towards healing: During the Holidays by David J. Roberts and Linda B. Findlay Copyright 2009. All rights reserved
David J. Roberts, LMSW, became a parent who experienced the death of a child, when his daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. He is a retired addiction professional and an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Utica College in Utica, New York. He is also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley.
Mr. Roberts has contributed articles to the Huffington Post blog, Open to Hope Foundation, The Grief Toolbox, Recovering the Self Journal and Medium. he has also been a speaker and workshop presenter on grief and loss issues nationally and locally.