Coping when the holidays bring feelings of grief rather than joy
There are a few reasons why people seem to struggle with grief more during the holiday season, said Sandy Forrest, bereavement support coordinator for Honey Lake Hospice in Susanville.
“Number one is because our holidays are based on tradition and the things we do with our families. It is just always that way so we expect it to be that way, yet when we lose someone part of that tradition is immediately missing and what always was is definitely changed,” said Forrest.
What was normal will never be normal again because there is a hole that person once filled, she added.
Those who have recently lost a loved one are most vulnerable and may struggle more with grief during the holidays. That’s because the year following a death is filled with a string of “firsts.”
“It will be the first birthday without the loved one, the first Christmas without, it is going to be a first anniversary without and each one of those is a significant event for the person who is grieving,” said Forrest.
People are also more vulnerable if their loved one died around the holidays. The season brings to the foreground memories of the events around the death.
Yet joy can be brought back into the season. One way is to talk about the loved one because talking relieves the pain. Forrest said people who are grieving will first talk about the events around the death, such as a prolonged sickness. However the good memories eventually resurface and more and more the talk is about the good times. Happy memories actually have physical benefits because happiness releases endorphins in the brain that makes a person physically feel better, explained Forrest.
A helpful exercise is to write a note, card or letter to the person who died expressing the feelings grief is bringing at the moment or telling him or her something that was left unsaid.
“You can keep the note, burn it, or put it in a memory book but it is something you are personally doing that attaches you to that person who is gone,” said Forrest.
Donating money or gifts in a loved ones name is also beneficial. For example, Honey Lake Hospice has a “Light Up a Life” tree and people can purchase doves with their loved ones name on it to display on the tree.
“In place of buying them a gift you do this as a memorial to them,” said Forrest.
Some people like to display a candle in the home and light it in memory of their loved one. Spending quiet time near the candle playing favorite music can be comforting.
While keeping busy seems like a good idea it really isn’t, said Forrest. All it does is mask the grief.
“Grieving is a normal process and we need to experience it to get through all the hard times. So focus on one task and give yourself time to get things done. Don’t put unnecessary pressures on yourself,” advised Forrest.
It’s best to stay with the traditions and people should do the things they always did because structure is very comforting. For example, if dinner with extended family members is a holiday tradition it’s important to attend.
“Stay within those boundaries and lots of times it is better then you ever expected it to be,” said Forrest.
Friends and relatives of the person grieving can help as well. They should take the initiative and invite the person out for coffee or to an event. Sometimes grieving people isolate themselves around the holidays because there are too many triggers that cause them to cry. Therefore tell them it is okay to cry, advised Forrest.
Also allow them to tell stories about their loved one over and over again and just listen enjoying the memories with them. It is never appropriate to tell a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one that he or she should be past that point.
“Grief is a very personal thing and there is no time limit on it. We all grieve in our own way,” said Forrest.
Pamphlets and books on grief and bereavement are available through Honey Lake Hospice, 257-3137 and Sierra Hospice, 258-3412.
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