The holidays can hit us hard when we’re grieving. Sharon Martin, LCSW guides us through toward a new year.
Whether your loss is recent or the holidays have brought an old loss to the surface, the holiday season can be an especially challenging time.
And while this article focuses on grief resulting from the death of a loved one, it’s important to note that grief doesn’t only happen when someone dies. You may be grieving the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, or a disability or illness.
A significant loss often results in re-assessing your priorities. It calls everything into question. It’s not uncommon to begin or end friendships, change jobs, or set new goals while grieving. It is also a natural time to take stock of how you celebrate the holidays. You may need to make short-term or permanent changes in order to cope and ultimately make the holidays enjoyable again.
My clients and I usually find that the anticipation of the holidays is often worse than the actual events. So, if the days and weeks leading up to Hanukah, Christmas or New Years are the most painful, just know that this is normal. The holidays are always painful for some people, but many people find that with each year they become more skilled at figuring out how to cope and anticipate what will be helpful.
Below are some suggestions to help you this holiday season.
Find ways to remember your loved one
Make a donation to a meaningful charity, volunteer in his/her memory, light a candle, visit the cemetery. I buy a special angel Christmas tree ornament every year.
Make time for yourself
Take a day off and spend it in reflection, self-care, or plain old fun like a hike or going to a movie.
Give yourself permission to say NO
It’s O.K. to decline party invitations and other events that feel overwhelming. You may need to let family or friends know that you need to celebrate differently this year. Don’t let obligation dictate what’s right for you.
Change some holiday traditions
I’ve had clients who decided to rent a cabin and go away for the holidays; spending the holidays in their usual way with family felt too painful. Less dramatic changes might be to go to a Christmas Eve service after not having been to church in years or going out for Christmas dinner instead of cooking at home.
Do something for others
You might give of your time, talents, or finances by donating food to the homeless shelter or toys to Toys for Tots. Helping others is a proven way to improve your mood.
Express your feelings
Stuffing your feelings down or pretending you’re fine when you’re really not, isn’t going to help. In fact, it’s likely to make things worse in the long run. Grief doesn’t subside unless you allow yourself to feel your feelings. Sadness, guilt, anger, disbelief and irritability are all normal. Talk to a religious leader or therapist, write in a journal, or attend a community memorial service. If you are struggling, please reach out for help. It’s easy to assume that others know how you’re feeling, but you’re pain and needs may not be obvious to others unless you communicate directly.
Take care of your physical health
Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Both insomnia and sleeping too much (hypersomnia) are common when grieving. Watch your sugar and alcohol intake, both of which can leave you feeling more down. Move your body. It’s tempting to just curl up in a blanket in front of the TV. Some of this can be comforting, but too much is counterproductive. I like to take a walk. It’s easy and I can (hopefully) get some vitamin D in the form of sunlight (another mood booster).
Start where you’re at and don’t judge yourself
For some of you, these ideas may sound like entirely too much. That’s alright. Start where you’re at and try to do just a little more each day. It’s normal to have “good days” and “bad days”. If you’re not up to going to the gym, maybe you can get up a do a few gentle stretches.
I find that healing requires a balance of honoring your feelings and gently pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. As I said, it’s important to feel all of your feelings and accept where you’re at in the healing process. But if you find you’re getting stuck in sadness, anger or guilt, give yourself a nudge to do something healthy even if you don’t entirely want to. Often you will feel better for having made the effort.
Most importantly, I hope you’ll give yourself the gift of self-compassion this holiday season.
Photo: Sara Morán/Flickr
This article was adapted from Coping with Grief during the Holidays which originally appeared on SharonMartinCounseling.com.