Grief is an unwanted journey. It is a journey that demands tremendous energy, self-discipline, fortitude, courage and a boatload of patience. Especially at the holidays, when you have mental pictures of how things should be and then in a stinging towel snap, you are flung back into the present reality. No sooner do you think you have it all under control when the gripping vigor and unrelenting stress of the holidays unsteady you. Holidays often magnify the feelings of grief. It is important and natural to experience the emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of it. It is unhealthy to block those avenues of expression. Therefore, the balance beam of the holidays on one side and grief on the other needs to be reckoned with. Trying to keep your sanity while dealing with your grief and the stress of the holidays is difficult. Now what do you do?
Holiday time rates high on the stress scale under normal circumstances. Add in a pinch of grief and you have a whole new standard of stress. If the grief is new, the holiday’s can be excruciating. Most of us, under normal circumstances, spend our holidays trying to remind ourselves it is all about giving and getting along. It is the time of year when we try to rise above the Aunt who still pinches your 50 year old cheeks on any area of the body, the Uncle who drinks way too much and the other naughty family members who may have assigned themselves as the official family gossip or the critical doomsdayer. Yet, when you have grief or shadow grief overwhelming you, this situation becomes unbearable. It is sort of like being a Bopper Doll. With every unwanted comment, unwanted touch or demand you feel the full blow of a punch. Fortunately, there are things you can do to take an active role in getting through the holidays and not feel like an emotional punching bag. The following are important for maintaining some kind of sanity while dealing with everyone else’s joyful or bah humbug holiday spirit.
- Take time for yourself. Don’t over burden yourself with too many chores. Take time to plan and time to prepare for the day. Be careful not to isolate yourself. Don’t cut yourself off from the support of family and friends.
- Rest. Practice relaxation techniques to help the stress level. Trying to weave your grief into your life is a difficult and a formidable task. You need rest to help you make it though tough times. Emotionally, physically and psychologically, the holidays are draining. You will need your strength.
- Shield yourself. Protect yourself from events and gatherings that are too much to handle. When asked to a gathering, ask who will be there and what they will be doing. Plan as much as you can for the approaching holidays. Be aware that this may be a difficult time with difficult people. The additional stress may affect you emotionally, mentally, and physically. It is important to be prepared for these feelings. Do holiday shopping early or give IOU’s out and do the shopping when you feel more comfortable.
- Back sliding. Allow yourself to back slide. You can’t always be making headway. Sometimes grief comes in waves. One week you feel like you are doing great and then the next you feel like you did when the loss first happened. Give yourself a break and don’t demand too much from yourself. It takes time and backsliding is part of working your way through your grief.
- Goals. Thinking about goals shows you are healing. Set small goals just for a day and then move on to setting a goal for next week and then next month. Goals are avenues of hope for tomorrow.
- Small delights. Take pleasure in the small delights of the day as often as you can. Laughter is a wonderful delight. Remembering a wonderful time with your loved may bring tears and laughter at the same time as well as warm your heart.
- Keep a log of the decisions that come up in your life. Do like Ben Franklin and make a list of the pros and the cons for each decision. Also prioritize and determine if there are any things you can delegate. Imagine your decisions will affect no one but you. If you isolate the decision to that level, it will make it easier to understand the direct impact the decision will have on your life.
- Realize that to choose something, you are usually giving up something. So decide which would you least mind sacrificing?
- Don’t second guess. Once you have made up your mind become committed to yourself and the decision.
- Hold on to your wallet. Sometimes grief can play havoc with the purse strings. People will spend more in times of depression so be careful. It is satisfactory to give IOU’s to people and you can shop under better circumstances. If shopping is overwhelming, try using catalogues or shop during off hours.
- Change something. Changing traditions may be helpful. It doesn’t mean you toss out the old completely. Small changes may make you feel more in control and less stressful. Recognize that holidays won’t be the same. If you try to keep everything as it was, you’ll be disappointed. Doing things a bit differently can acknowledge the change while preserving continuity with the past. Open presents Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. Vary the timing of Chanukah gift giving. Have dinner at a different time or place. Let the children take over decorating the house, the tree, baking and food preparation, etc.
- Allow the tears. Certain memories will pop into your head that may bring tears of sadness or joy but definitely memories. A particular ornament may trigger a memory. A particular gathering, food or song may bring teardrops. Think if you can handle the responsibility of the family dinner, etc. or should you ask someone else to do it? Do you want to talk about your loved one or not? Should you stay here for the holidays or go to a completely different environment?
The holidays may affect other family members. It is wise to discuss holiday plans with others and make sure there are no surprises. Respect their choices and needs as they should respect yours. Try to be open to the possibility you may have to compromise if necessary. It is important to share your concerns, feelings, and apprehensions. Allow them to know that this is a difficult time for you. Allow yourself to accept their help and let them know you appreciate their love and support at this time.
The more you understand about the complexities of grief, the better you will be able to make decisions for what is right for you. Grief affects you on an emotional, physical and mental level. The following symptoms let you know that you are reacting normally to your grief. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need to seek outside help from a medical doctor or counselor. It is always beneficial and necessary to check on your health and to find a non-judgmental person to talk with.
- The physical symptoms you may experience include crying, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, tightness in the throat and chest, digestive problems, dry mouth, empty feeling, disorientation, numbness, sensitivity to noise, change in sleeping and eating patterns and an inability to swallow.
- The emotional symptoms include depression, anger, guilt, sadness, relief, anguish, isolation, and loneliness. Many times the emotional pain is more difficult to deal with during the holidays. It is not uncommon to see dramatic changes in behavior at this time such as more outbursts. When activities become to frenzied, it is not uncommon to want to isolate yourself. Things become more confusing. There may be a tendency to increase negative behavior. Too much eating or drinking or taking over the counter medications will create more problems. It is important to talk with your doctor if you are feeling too overwhelmed. It is not a weakness – it is strength to know yourself and to ask for help.
- The mental symptoms may include, confusion, inability to concentrate, numbness, can’t make decisions, nightmares, increased anxiety, irritability and loss of self-esteem. It has been proven that the immune system is compromised by stress.
Keep in mind that if the loss has been over a year many people will expect you to be “over it”. They don’t understand how shadow grief creeps up at special times such as holidays and anniversaries. Be prepared to educate those who expect the impossible. Let them know you will never be “over it”, but assure them you hope to eventually enjoy the holidays again. Let them know that you have been trying hard to weave the life that was to the life that now exists. Always share the vision you hold for the hope of moving forward to live a life of radiance.
Don’t forget that anticipation of any holiday is generally much worse than the actual holiday.
Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, emphasizing the familiar. Others may wish to avoid old sights and sounds. While others will find new ways to acknowledge the season.
Holidays are a time to re-examine your priorities. Ask yourself what you really delight in doing and what should you delegate or change. Enjoying yourself is not a betrayal to your loved one. Laughter and joy are not disrespectful. Give yourself and your family members permission to celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays.
The holidays always a offer a way to escape yourself by doing something for someone else, such as volunteer at a soup kitchen or visit the lonely and shut-ins. If you are up to it you might ask someone who is alone to share the day with your family. You could provide help for a needy family or donate a gift of money in your loved one’s name.
Be mindful not to build a relationship to your pain but instead focus on your memories and your goals for the future. Recognize your loved one’s presence by burning a special candle or hanging a stocking for your loved one in which people can put notes with their thoughts or feelings. Think about listening to music especially liked by your loved one. If you are comfortable share photographs with family and friends and remember your memories. Most of all be true to yourself. It is your journey and only you can walk the path to a life that is vibrant with your memories and hopes aimed toward all the tomorrows.
Copyright Sherry Russell 2003
Updated: December 22, 2014