The unimaginable grief and pain experienced after losing a loved one can seem devastating at any time during anyone’s life. Still, the burden and pressure of pain can escalate when one has to live through this challenging experience during the holidays season. Here are 11 tips how to cope with grief and the holidays.
“There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.” Aeschylus
How can someone celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other special occasion like birthdays or anniversaries while grieving the death of a spouse, a parent, a child, a close friend? How can we act normal when we feel drowning in sorrow? Some people might feel guilty for celebrating the holidays while dealing with grief; others might feel like they don’t want to celebrate any holidays ever again, while others might feel angry at the world for being so happy while they are going through so much pain.
Today, I write this article a month after the unexpected death of my husband due to Covid 19. This year, in the US, there have been over 800k deaths from Covid. This pandemic has brought pain, fear and anger to so many families around us. As someone who is currently experiencing the heart-wrenching pain of the loss of my husband of 22 years, I offer you all my condolences. I hope you can find here some helpful advice on how to deal with the grief process during this holiday season, how to find the strength to heal, and how to deal with those who surround you. I pray that we all find some comfort and peace during this process, although I know that the pain will never cease to exist. I am sure we will rise and keep living for our families and ourselves.
WHAT IS GRIEF?
The Merriam-webster dictionary defines grief as “an intense mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.” Agony, anguish, heartache, heartbreak, despair are just a few words that can convey the wide range of emotions anyone can feel while grieving. According to psychologytoday.com, “grief” is the acute pain that accompanies loss. Additionally, a person may feel guilt and confusion, especially if the death was unexpected and if the relationship with that person was problematic or they were going through hard times.
During my own experience, I was shocked by my own reaction to grief at first. In my case, my husband had been fighting a complicated disease for about three months, wherein on several occasions, I didn’t know if he was going to pull through, but he did. My therapist explained to me that I was going through was is known as “anticipatory grief,” which is the grieving process that happens before the actual death.
The grief of anticipating death usually occurs when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease or has been battling a life-threatening illness where death is a real possibility (Finke). Because of this, when the actual death occurred, I was stronger, better prepared, and I was able to accept more easily the fact that my husband was no longer suffering and he was finally resting in peace. Now, the pain is the same, heartbreaking, and I later found myself going through the same stages all over again. Only this time, my mind was already preparing for the worst.
Another important aspect of grieving is that many people have this perception that anyone who experiences grief has to show extreme sadness or entirely fall apart. If you are not doing that, you are not grieving correctly. These ideas can make it harder for people to feel their own process, as they should. I know I felt like something was wrong with me, which can add more pain to the whole situation. But I understood that I am different from my family and friends, and my process is unique. So, keep in mind that everyone’s grief process is different. Each person has to deal with it in their own way, according to their own personality, life experiences, relationships, and spirituality.
For some people, grief can be shorter in time. However, the pain may come back during special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, or it can be triggered by any particular event that reminds them of their loved one. Other people may go through long periods of grief that may turn into a chronic depression lasting months or years, and they will need more help and support from experts, family, and friends.
STAGES OF GRIEF
We all have heard about grief and its different stages, but what we have heard or learned might be very different from what we actually experience. There is simply no correct or incorrect way to grieve; there is no correct order of stages to go through, and there is no approximate time limit to know when the pain will lessen, or when you will accept the loss, or when you will stop being angry. Grief is a very unique experience and varies from person to person. Some people will not go through all the stages from the beginning, others might skip some until after years later, or some can repeat them in a cycle until they can finally reach acceptance or peace.
THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF
Denial: Denial is the refusal to believe that our loved one has passed and we will never see them again in this world. In this stage, we may feel numb, like we don’t have any feelings, no pain, no sadness, no anger. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross explains it like this: “Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” (Kübler-Ross, Kessler)
Anger: The American psychological association defines anger as an emotion characterized by hostility toward someone, or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong. We may feel angry with the loved one who died and left us alone; we may feel angry at ourselves for not doing enough to save them; we might be angry at God for not healing or protecting our loved one from harm, or we may be angry at the disease that took our loved one away from us.
We feel anger whenever there is a threat to one of our basic needs: Food, shelter, love, identity, social affiliation, or security, and that is what happens when we lose a loved one. But we have to be careful because disproportionate anger can generate other complications that may affect our health. For example, anger can increase your blood pressure, affect your heart and your brain, making it hard to think straight, and end up causing more damage to your physical and mental health (Dorothy Franks).
Bargaining: Bargaining is the need to negotiate over the terms. We may find ourselves negotiating with God by praying: if you bring him or her back, I will be a better person, go to church more, etc. Or we can try and negotiate with our loved ones; if you fight harder to live, I will be a better spouse, I will be a better son or daughter, I will do whatever it is you always wanted to do. We try to find anything that will help us think that time can go back and we can be spared from the pain of the loss (Kübler-Ross, Kessler).
Depression: Depression is the persistent feeling of sadness, along with the loss of capacity for pleasure, insomnia, and loss of interest in eating or taking care of oneself. These symptoms tend to improve over time, although they may resurface on special occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, or when some activities trigger a memory of the loved one (Mayo Clinic Staff).
Acceptance: acceptance is the moment when you finally recognize the truth of the reality that your loved one is gone and you will never see them again in this world. To accept the loss of your loved one does not mean that you are now OK or that you no longer feel sad or in pain. It means that you are ready to keep on living without your loved one by your side. You may never feel whole again, or you may never stop hurting. Still, you have recognized that you need to move on and give yourself another chance in life, find new relationships, live new experiences, and make new memories with your family and friends (Kübler-Ross, Kessler).
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” Vicki Harrison
11 TIPS ON HOW TO COPE WITH GRIEF AND THE HOLIDAY SEASON
Grief is complicated as it is to be sad while so much happiness is all around us, like during the holidays. It is normal to feel guilty to celebrate while accepting the loss over time, even though we will still feel the pain forever. Nevertheless, I have found some tips to help process these contradictory feelings.
- Be careful with social media: some people might find comfort by interacting on social media. Others might feel overwhelmed with the pain and loss when looking at other people’s posts being happy and together with family, living what appears to be perfect lives. If you feel like social media is affecting you more negatively than positively, maybe take a break or avoid looking at specific stories.
- Don’t suppress your emotions: if you try to hide or control your grief in front of others, you are more likely to take longer to heal. If you are not dealing with your emotions, whatever those might be in your unique situation, you will feel drained physically and emotionally because of the effort you’re making to keep it together and look as if you are fine. If people reach out to you during the holidays in any way or invite you to any gathering, feel free to let them know how you feel, if you are up for it or not, or if you are not ready to talk about it with them as well.
- Be kind to yourself: know that you’re doing the best you can do. Don’t be hard on yourself if you are not crying enough or too much for too long. Take your time to feel everything you need and work through all your emotions until you are ready to go to the next stage.
- Find a safe space to be alone: If you do decide to attend any family reunions, or holiday activities, plan where you would go or what you would do if you suddenly feel if you feel overwhelmed, you can’t take it anymore and feel a wave of grief coming over you.
- Set boundaries: don’t feel pressured to participate in any festivities if you don’t feel ready, and make sure you let everyone know that. Sometimes family and friends will want to help us by pushing us out of our comfort zone, but don’t be afraid to say no, if you are not ready.
- Honor Old Traditions: some people find it helpful to honor old traditions that used to be done with their loved ones. In my case, my thirteen-year-old son wanted to cook his dad’s favorite dish for thanksgiving. I could see that he needed to do that, and he did everything exactly like his dad used to do it. I felt it was his way of maintaining his dad’s memory alive, feeling that even though he was not here with us anymore, he was still in our hearts and our minds, and his legacy would go on through us.
- Honor Memories: Looking at pictures and having all these memories in my mind helped me calm the pain through the first weeks. I felt like by looking at all our family pictures and family videos, he was still with us, and in a way, I was giving myself more time to process the pain and accept that he was gone finally. Grief tattoos or memorial tattoos are a beautiful way to remember a loved one
- Create New Traditions: some people find it helpful to create new traditions to honor their loved ones. For example, try something their loved one always wanted to try or do, like going on a memorable trip, camping, hiking, etc.
- Find your own Coping mechanism: different things work for different people. For example, it could be praying, deep breathing, taking a walk, journaling, listening to music, practicing yoga, saying positive affirmations, etc. Just find the skills that work for you and regularly practice them. Writing in a journal has always helped me unload all my thoughts and feelings. Writing a letter and putting everything on paper or a computer is a way to let go of many feelings that maybe you could never tell your loved one.
- Please seek professional help: grieving is complicated, and no one should do it alone. If you find yourself without the appropriate support of family or friends or feel like they don’t understand your process, find a therapist who will guide you on how to work through your emotions more positively.
- Think about the positive experiences lived: we tend to always think of all that was lost: our spouse, our partner, our children, our parents, our friends, our support. But we also have to think about all the positive things that person left in us, for us. All our shared experiences, the love we felt, the happiness we lived, the children they left us, the lessons they taught us. We have to think of all the people who are still with us and still need us one way or the other.
GRIEF AND YOUR HEALTH
While you think that grief is only an emotional and mental state, grief can also negatively affect the rest of your body. You may start noticing that now you get tired faster, you lose your appetite, have diarrhea, have trouble falling asleep, have more headaches than usual, and that lately you’re catching every virus that may be out there. You might feel so down or exhausted that you have trouble just getting out of bed or off the sofa.
You might realize that the coping responses you’ve developed might not be the healthiest. You may feel the mental fog and be more irritable than before. These symptoms arise because emotional stress can affect your brain chemistry and alter your hormonal balance, thus affecting your immune system leaving it compromised as a result. It is important to take care of yourself, eat healthy foods, exercise, and get enough rest (DeSieno).
Final Thoughts on How to Cope with Grief and the Holidays:
The most important fact to acknowledge about your grief is that it is as unique as you are. Respect your process, how you respond to the challenges, and how you are trying to deal with them. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Be mindful of unhealthy coping mechanisms like engaging in drugs or excess alcohol or participating in dangerous activities of any sort. An essential aspect of your healing process during these holidays will be to remember the love of your loved one and to cherish the memories you shared.
“The stories we tell ourselves are as equally important as the ones our loved ones left for us to share” (Meekhof).
Sharing funny stories with family and friends, cooking their favorite foods, looking at pictures, watching home videos are just some of the activities that may help you find some comfort (DeSieno). Just find what works for you and your family.
“Stories do not end.” Anaïs Nin
I found this short story titled “Grief from the Perspective of an Old Man,” and I feel like it is an excellent comparison of how I have felt through my process. I want to share it with you, and I hope you like it too.
"As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage, and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive. Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out. Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks." (Ofield)
We invite you to read: What To Do When Your Spouse Dies – Financial Checklist
Other Available Resources:
- For more information about grief, visit www.grief.com
- For support groups in your area, visit www.griefshare.org
- “Anger and Aggression.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/anger.
- Dorothy Franks, MA. “Understanding: Knowing the Connection between Anger and Grief.” Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation, Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation, 26 May 2015, https://crhcf.org/insights/understanding-the-anger-caused-by-grief/.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Feb. 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007.
- DeSieno, Lisa. “Grief and Loss through the Holidays.” Mayo Clinic Health System, https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/grief-and-loss-throughout-the-holiday-season.
- Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. “Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kubler Ross & David Kessler.” Grief.com, https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/.
- Ofield, Tim. “Grief from the Perspective of an Old Man.” Welcome to Ofield Funeral Home, https://www.ofieldfuneralhome.com/grief-from-the-perspective-of-an-old-man.
- Psychology Today Staff. Grief | Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/grief.
- Meekhof, Kristin A. “14 Tips for Managing Holiday Grief | Psychology Today …” Psychologytoday.com, https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/widows-guide-healing/202112/14-tips-managing-holiday-grief.
- Finke, Amy. “Anticipatory Grief.” Anticipatory Grief – Health Encyclopedia – University of Rochester Medical Center, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=90&contentid=P03043.
By: Yeszenia Gulloso