Remembrance of Things Past: Dealing With Grief During the Holidays

Posted on November 25th, 2015

If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, the holidays can seem to mock with their promise of togetherness and celebration. How can there be togetherness with an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table? How can there be celebration with one fewer name on the Christmas card?

“The holidays are a time when absence is loud,” says David Kessler, a grief specialist and the bestselling author of several books, including On Grief and Grieving, written with the pioneering grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The memory of what once was can bring heartbreaking poignancy to every holiday activity, and your inner state may contrast starkly with the gaiety around you.

What helps, Kessler has discovered after decades of study and the hard knowledge gained from his own mother’s death when he was a teen, is not running from the grief but experiencing it as the gift it is. “Grief doesn’t work when we stop it. When you allow it to work, it heals.”

That healing doesn’t mean sadness is magically erased. We never “get over” losing a loved one, Kessler explains. But we can reach a point of peace where they are remembered with more love than pain.

To help you progress along that path this holiday season, keep these thoughts in mind:

Grieve in your own way.

Grief is commonly expressed as occurring in five stagesdenial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but these are merely a framework that can help a person identify what they are feeling, Kessler says, not a map to follow.

“Grief is as unique as our fingerprints,” he explains. “It’s a very individual path.” That means expressing grief in your own way and letting others do the same. “Sometimes we’re upset because a person is not getting out of bed,” Kessler says, “but sometimes we are upset because they aren’t crying enough. We want them to grieve more. And we know now that there are a lot of people who are very resilient people. It’s just not their style to break down.”

It may be time to seek help, however, if grief keeps you or someone you know from daily activities. “I use the example that if the loss is recent and someone stays in bed all weekend, that’s OK. But if they can’t get out of bed and they’re missing work, then there would be cause for concern.”

Do as much or as little as feels right.

Just aren’t up to the holidays this year? Cancel them. It’s a brave move and a freeing one, Kessler says. “In fact,” he says, “people are shocked at just how freeing it is.”

Allowing yourself to take a break from the enormous expectations of the holiday season — the meals, the decorating, the entertaining, the parties, the card swapping, the shopping — not only lowers stress, it lets you reframe the season in a way that may bring more meaning. You can create new traditions that honor your loved one, perhaps going to their favorite restaurant or watching their favorite movie. Or you can turn the holiday into a day of service, helping others while you help yourself.

“A lot of time we have rituals that were handed to us,” Kessler explains. “And many times in grief when you take a break from the ritual, you get to go and recreate it to make it more personal and real.”

If you do decide to accept holiday invitations, do it on your own terms. You can take your car so you know you can leave when you’re ready, for example. It can also help to make a Plan B, Kessler notes. Sometimes just knowing you can switch gears is enough to give you the confidence to proceed with your original plans.

Don’t seek relief in substances.

The holidays bring the admonition to eat, drink and be merry. Turning to substances to dull the pain of your loss, however, will inevitably lead to even more distress than you started with.

“In all my years, no one ever said to me, ‘Well, I was really grieving a lot and then I turned to drink and it all healed.’ ” The best you can expect, Kessler explains, is for the grief to temporarily ebb — “until it comes back the next day.”

If you find yourself using substances to deal with your pain and you are struggling to stop, reach out for help from an addiction treatment professional.

Remember your loved one — and encourage others to do the same.

Your instinct might be to pretend there is no hole in your life, but you’ll find more peace if you make a place for your loved one in the holiday. You might light a candle in their honor, perhaps, or include their favorite dish on the holiday menu, say a prayer, or ask those who knew your loved one to share a story.

By openly acknowledging your loss, you not only keep your loved one’s memory alive, you also let others know it’s OK to talk about them. That’s crucial, Kessler explains, because so often people stay silent out of fear they’ll cause you pain by alluding to it. The reality, of course, is that the greatest gift you can receive is to hear your loved one spoken of and remembered.

Your grief should not be thought of as something to be hidden away from the world or ignored, in other words, Kessler says. “It’s there for a reason. It’s the reflection of the love you have.”

For more advice on dealing with your loss during the holidays, view Kessler’s informational video at holidaygrief.com.

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