For those who are grieving a loss, thinking about the upcoming holiday season may be accompanied by feelings of anxiety or dread. Being surrounded by holiday festivities may result in intensified feelings of sadness and loneliness, especially during the first holiday season without a beloved family member or friend. Seniors are susceptible to grief not only due to the death of a loved one, but also from changes in health status or living arrangements, which may result in the alteration or discontinuation of long-standing holiday traditions. Often, our society wants to see those who are grieving participate in the celebrations around them, believing that the celebrations will help the healing process, or at least distract someone from focusing on their loss for a time. Those who are grieving may wish they could avoid the holidays altogether. Is there a “right” way for families to cope with this dilemma?
The first step in managing grief during the holidays is to acknowledge the grief. Ignoring it won’t make the pain go away, or help others around you understand how you feel so that they can be supportive. Everyone’s grieving experience is individual, and by talking about your feelings with a trusted friend or family member, you may begin to feel better. The holidays may intensify feelings of loss, however one shouldn’t feel guilty about experiencing some lighter moments. Especially when the grief is related to a death, it is important to realize that laughter is not disrespectful to the deceased.
Coping with emotions will be easier if you recognize that fluctuations in how you feel will occur. Try to be prepared for when something triggers a strong reaction. Triggers may include such things as hearing a certain holiday song, decorating traditions, or special holiday foods. The thought of attending family gatherings or traditional holiday activities may cause uncertainty, but instead of completely avoiding all of them, one can plan ahead for an early exit if emotions become overwhelming or if an awkward situation arises. Expect that energy levels will be lower while grieving, and make adjustments to the number and type of activities that you choose to do so that you have some energy reserves to deal with periods of stronger emotions. Allow others to support you by accepting offers of assistance with tasks that you would like to accomplish but may be too draining for you to do on your own.
Flexibility is key when dealing with grief during the holidays. Remember that just because you may choose to do something a certain way this year, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way in the future. Think about your traditional holiday activities and routines and discuss them ahead of time with your family and friends, to help determine which ones you think you can handle, which ones should be set aside this year, and which ones may require some adaptations. Keep an open mind about trying something new, and look for ways to bridge old traditions with your current situation, so that you can both stay connected to the past and acknowledge the change which has occurred. Keep in mind that the holiday season, although difficult, will eventually pass.
Karen Kaslow, RN