When the holidays aren't happy

Festive lights. Beautiful music. Yummy treats.

Everyone around you is anticipating the holidays. Their world is full of excitement, love, joy. They’re planning parties, baking cookies, singing carols, lighting candles, shopping for just the right presents to put a smile on loved ones’ faces. They may complain about being busy or rushed, but they are fully immersed in enjoying the “most wonderful time of the year.”

But you’re grieving. Maybe you’re doing your best to act as if you’re just fine, and you’re going through the motions of participating in the season while privately gritting your teeth, or screaming in your head, or spending every moment holding back the tears. Maybe you’re retreating, staying at home and sleeping as much as possible, with the covers pulled up over your head. And maybe you’re just trying to figure out how to navigate this next month without going insane.

How can you get through the holiday season when you’re devastated by loss?

First things first. Breathe. Stay hydrated. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Get some exercise.

Every relationship is unique, and every loss is unique. Your best way of dealing with the holidays may not be the same as mine, or your mother’s, or your children’s, or your friend’s. That’s okay!! You are an individual, and the trick is to find what works FOR YOU.

And what works for you this year may be different from last year, or next year. Check in with yourself, and do whatever feels right and healthy and nurturing.

Some people find comfort in keeping up with the same traditions they’ve always had. If that’s true of you, then go ahead and participate – but monitor your emotional and physical energy levels. It may be that you need to scale back to some extent, because you’re tiring more easily.

Some people find comfort in jettisoning everything they’ve done in past years, and doing something completely new: working in a soup kitchen, going on a cruise, starting a new hobby.

Some people find comfort in adding new twists to old traditions: going out to eat instead of cooking, making a charitable donation in memory of their loved one, setting a place at the table for the absent family member and having each person present recount a happy memory they shared with the deceased.

Don’t be afraid to mention your loved one, by name. Others may avoid talking about him/her in a well-meaning but misguided effort not to remind you of your loss. Show them by example that you want to acknowledge that missing person.

Talk to your family and friends. Find someone you can confide in about your conflicting feelings about the holidays. Let them know that this is hard for you. Let them be there for you. People who love you want to be of comfort but they probably don’t know how, because grief isn’t something that can be fixed – it’s something that has to be processed. So let your loved ones know what you need: a hug, company to watch a movie with, someone who will go with you to a party but be willing to leave early if you run out of steam.

If your friends or family give you unhelpful platitudes – “he wouldn’t want you to be sad,” “it’s time you got over this,” “just keep busy and don’t think about it” – recognize that they are trying to help but don’t know how. You can choose to ignore those statements or talk to them about why they’re more hurtful than helpful. Just realize that they almost certainly intend to soothe and comfort you, even if they are going about it in a clumsy way.

Some people find that their religious beliefs help them through grief. Perhaps you would find comfort in attending services, even if you weren’t a regular congregant in the past. Focusing on the spiritual may help you feel connected to the deceased.

Some people, on the other hand, find that organized religion isn’t helpful to them. Remember, grief is an emotional reaction to loss, and for some people focusing on the spiritual aspects doesn’t help at all with the sadness and loneliness of missing their loved ones in the here and now.

Find what works, for you. Tell the people in your life what you need. Know that what feels helpful one day may not feel right at all on another day. Grief usually comes in waves, and you may feel buffeted about even more at this time of year, when there’s a heightened expectation of cheer.

Notice the moments of peace, joy, and warmth when you can, and cherish them. But don’t force yourself to feel what you don’t, or to do what you don’t have the energy for. Take care of yourself, and remember that grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. It doesn’t have a timetable, and it doesn’t progress in a measured, predetermined way. You will be better on some days and worse on others, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just grief.

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