Articles of Interest

Navigating Grief During the Holidays

By Susan Ellis, DMin, Licensed Professional Counselor

So, here we are again, in the lovely season of autumn, when the air turns crisp and leaves get colorful once more. Many people love this time of year, with the smell of apple pies coming from the kitchen and the sight of pumpkins and corn stalks decorating yards. However, for those who have lost loved ones and are in the early stages of grief, the seasonal changes will only signal the return of now painful memories. As I have heard said over and over again to me, “The holidays are coming, how will I ever get through them?” And, let’s face it, the clammer of family and social expectations this time of year often stretches to the absurd.

What can be done to get through these coming months? My advice to those who will be dealing with grief this upcoming holiday season is to first learn Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Start by make a list of what you can and cannot change.

Here are some things on my list that none of us can change:

  • The holidays are coming, and they won’t be the same for you. As difficult as it may seem, you have to be open to change.
  • Your body will probably feel exhausted throughout this time period because grieving is hard work. It will be wise to get plenty of rest.
  • You will feel sad, angry, guilty, etc. about a lot of things. As I say to my clients, “Remember, they are just feelings, they don’t have to define who you are.”
  • You cannot control what other people will say to you. People often mean well, but if they haven’t gone through this, they just don’t know what it feels like, and their words can be insensitive. Try not to take what they say personally.

In admitting what you cannot change, you also need to recognize that there is plenty you can change. Traditions are very comforting at times, but they were never meant to be set in stone, so here is where you can learn to be flexible. To make some of these changes, you will have to plan ahead and think about what you want to do, when you will do it, and with whom you will do it. Talk this over with your family members; don’t expect them to guess what you want. You may want to create a new tradition to honor your loved one. Adopt a needy family, invite someone new to your holiday celebration, or leave town and go to a different holiday environment. Remember that doing a little of something is healthier than an “all or nothing” attitude. It will be important to be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Maybe this year you let someone else be the host. Please do not be afraid to say “no” or even make your “yes” a tentative one. Patience with yourself will go a long way in helping your grieving process this time of year.

One positive change to anyone’s holiday agenda is to schedule time to exercise, which helps with depression. Why not learn some new relaxation techniques as an antidote to stress? Talking with trusted friends should also be a priority during this holiday time. Granted, not all of one’s friends can handle these feelings, so if you need some extra support, mental health professionals are great listeners. There is no “right” way to go through the grieving process over the holidays. Things will go wrong or “not as planned,” but try to relax and make whatever happens a “learning experience.”

When my husband was in Iraq in 2003 and the holidays were approaching, the two things I dreaded the most were the holiday music and the shopping. So, I turned off the radio and didn’t watch any holiday “specials.” The shopping was a bit more of a challenge, but catalogues came in handy. And on some level, it felt good to get back a little of the original spirit of these celebrations. What these experiences taught me is that faith must not overshadow the need to approach the issue of grief and loss from a sound mental health perspective.

At some point in all of our lives, we have to choose between living in yesterday or living to tomorrow. Grief is a process that permanently changes us. As painful as this may feel, the good news is that we do not have to make that journey alone. The last half of Niebuhr’s prayer says: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking this world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next. AMEN.”