Friday, November 9, 2012

Handling Grief During The Holidays

By Kirsten Randall Belzer, LCSW, CHT

 Ways to Cope With Grief Individually at the Holidays
 Ways for Families to Cope With Grief Together at the Holidays
 How Social Workers Can Help Individuals and Families Handle Grief at the Holidays


The holiday season can be a particularly painful time for people after the death of a loved one or friend. The expectation that we feel joyous during the holidays can exacerbate the hurt of the loss.

Questions arise about how to spend the holidays. When the person who died played a main role in celebrations, family members wonder who will take over those duties this year. Problems may arise when these concerns are not addressed with other family members and expectations are not clear.

Grieving people also may not have the energy do to all they have traditionally done during the previous holidays. This may mean no cards this year or less cooking, which is understandable, though this sometimes leads to feelings of guilt on the part of the bereaved. If cards are sent, families may not feel sure whether to sign their loved one's name to the card. Some families don't sign the name, others choose to sign the name and add "in Spirit" or if it was a child who died they may write "Angel" before the name.

Those who are grieving sometimes react in one of two ways to the holidays. They may try to either rigidly celebrate in exactly the same way as before the death, or ignore the holidays completely. Yet the holidays can never be exactly the same as they were before the death because a part of the family is missing. And they cannot be avoided – even with a trip to a distant destination. Escaping the holidays is impossible with reminders saturating the media and stores.

Ways to Cope with Grief Individually at the Holidays

Individuals who are bereaved may also need to be extra gentle with themselves during the holidays. The following are some suggestions: 
  • When others offer help, accept it. The holidays are a draining time of year for most people and those who are grieving are already short on energy. 
  • Think about your belief system. Is now the time to strengthen your ties to your religious community? Loosen your ties? Or perhaps change your beliefs so some extent to fit with any new lessons you may have learned from your grief. 
  • Take care of yourself. Avoid overindulgence in alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and sweets. Grief takes its toll on one physically, as well as emotionally. Try to avoid further stressing the body by eating nutritious food. 
  • Do something special for yourself. Buy yourself a gift in memory of your loved one, perhaps something you think they would want you to have. Pay someone to clean your house. Get a massage. See a good movie. 
  • Allow yourself time to cry. 
  • Allow yourself to be alone when you would like to be. Many people who grieve feel guilty about wanting to "cocoon" during the holidays, but it may be seen as a natural way of helping us slow down when grief is taking its toll on us. 
  • Decide with whom to spend your time. Spend time with those people who are able to be supportive. Decrease the amount of time spent with unsupportive friends and family.
Ways for Families to Handle Grief Together at the Holidays

Difficulties can arise in families who have lost a loved one as each family member may have different ideas about how to celebrate or not celebrate the holidays. Perhaps the optimal way for grieving families to celebrate is to openly talk about expectations and who will play which roles.

Ways of spending the holidays that can help in healing include the following:

  • Sharing stories around the table about the person who died. 
  • Looking at old photos together that include the loved one. 
  • Observing a moment of silence or prayer to honor the person's memory and keep him or her a part of the holiday.
  • Placing an empty chair where they would normally sit and light a candle or place a flower at that place. 
  • Deciding which traditions you would like to keep as a family and perhaps add a new tradition.

It helps to understand, however, that everyone will grieve in his or her own way and some family members may have a difficult time looking at photos or talking about their loved one openly. These family members' feelings can be respected and they may choose to remember the loved one in a less public way. There isn't a right or wrong way to grieve at the holidays or any other time.

How Social Workers Can Help Individuals and Families Handle Grief at the Holidays

  • Find a bereavement center in your community. If you are not sure, call your local hospice and speak with a social worker or bereavement program coordinator. They can often refer you to an appropriate group. 
  • Call a social worker who specializes in grief and bereavement issues. This therapist can help normalize the grief process, often just at a time you may feel as if you're going crazy. You may choose to meet with this person individually or as a family.

Through conscious efforts to acknowledge the significance of the loss and to memorialize the loved one, survivors of a death can survive the holidays. With each holiday, anniversary or birthday that passes, a bit more of the healing process can occur.