Grief Doesn’t Take Holidays

It was forty years ago, in a large downtown hospital that I worked my first Christmas Eve shift as a new nursing grad. As was the hospital tradition, a call went out during the night for nurses willing to sing carols strolling through the wards on Christmas morning . I thought it was a brilliant idea and jumped at the chance to participate.

c. Vancouver Sun

Years of voice lessons landed me a position at the front of our little group where I had a clear view into patient’s rooms as we sang our way through the wards. We started on the orthopaedic floor where skiers with their legs in traction smiled and waved as we passed their doors. All was merry and fine until we entered the oncology floor which included our hospital’s answer to hospice palliative care – a few rooms away from the nursing station.

Passing these rooms, I saw some patients too ill to wave, some with expressions of sweet remembrance, and  others who garnered their strength to whisper ”Thank you”. Some of the patients had family members by their beds – holding their hands, wiping tears from their faces: some of the patients were alone; for many patients it would be the last Christmas.

By the time we reached the unit door, I’d been gently moved to the back of the group; I couldn’t sing through my tears.  For the first time in my life, I understood that Christmas wasn’t all fun and cheer – it could be a very difficult time for those struggling with illness, dying and grief

The holiday season holds many challenges for those who have lost a loved one in the past year, or so.  For example, meeting the expectations of established family traditions, or the “merry ho-ho” attitude of our culture just add stress to the grief.

“If the grief is fresh, holiday cheer can seem like an affront and celebrations may underscore how alone people feel,” notes Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Coping with the holiday season takes some thought and pre-planning but it is possible to survive intact and healthy. Here are some tips that the bereaved have found helpful during the holidays.

Acknowledge that the holiday season will be difficult

  • Many bereaved say that the anticipation of the day/ holiday is often worse than the actual day itself.
  • Heads up: although the first holiday without a loved one is difficult, some people find that there are still some challenges in the second year after a death.

Plan a ritual to acknowledge your loved one during the holidays

Plan a simple symbolic act that acknowledges your memory of your loved one. For example:

  • Leave an empty chair at the table.
  • Light a candle dedicated to your loved one.
  • Place a bulb on the tree in memory of your loved one.Burning candle on a black background
  • Attend a seasonal memorial service offered at a local hospice or funeral home.
  • Recognize your loved one through your personal spiritual practices.
  • Be creative: you may want to use visualization or creative expressive tools, such as drawing or music, to help you develop rituals which will be meaningful for you.

Make new traditions and plans

Instead of spending the holiday doing things you’ve done before, create  new traditions which may ease the obvious absence of a deceased loved one. These may include doing different activities, or even going to a new venue, such as a restaurant or even Hawaii!

  • Make “Plan A” and B (C,D, and E) so that you have a choice of things to do
  • Knowing that you can change your plans depending on your feelings, may help decrease the stress.
  • For example, if Plan A is to go to a relative’s house for dinner, Plan B might be to go to the movies instead.

hawaii for the holidays

Help others

Helping others may release the “feel-good hormones” endorphins. You might:

  • Volunteer to serve dinner at a Drop-in centre, walk the animals in a rescue shelter, go shopping for your elderly neighbours, and distribute mittens to the homeless…
  • Volunteer for a cause embraced by your loved one; what was an important value in their life?

Take it easy on yourself

  • Practice these words: “No, thank you.”
  • Rest as much as possible
  • Stay hydrated – water will help your brain cope with the “fight or flight” response to loss.
  • ACCEPT HELP. Let others do the decorating, shopping, baking, wrapping, cleaning, greeting cards, cooking….
    drinking water
    Water helps your brain and body cope with the stress

Practice Coping Mantras

These are short, easy to remember statements you can say to yourself when things get overwhelming. For example:

  • “Be sad. It’s allowed – grief doesn’t take holidays.”
  • “Laugh. It’s allowed – life goes on.”
  • “All good things come to an end. All bad things come to an end.”
  • What mantras or life mottoes do you already practice? Write them on post-it notes as reminders.

Spend time with supportive people

  • Say “No, thank you” to invitations to parties or gathering where you might feel uncomfortable or that you would like to avoid. In other words, “Just say no.”
  • Spend time with the people who you identify as helpful. This might include “Friends” on Facebook, or other social media platforms
  • Phone support can be helpful when you’re just too tired to go out or have company; ask friends to call you, instead of you calling them.

Embrace your “Treasure of Memories

Senior woman and its grandsons together examine an album with photos

  • Alan Wolfelt, well- known director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, says, Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved.  And holidays always make you think about times past.  Instead of ignoring these memories, share them with your family and friends.  Keep in mind that memories are tinged with both happiness and sadness.  If your memories bring laughter, smile.  If your memories bring sadness, then it’s alright to cry….”
  • Talk about your loved one over the holidays.
  • Share stories about your loved one.
  • Photo albums are a helpful to encourage conversation about your loved one – put one or two out where family and friends will look through them.

 The bottom line is to do whatever YOU need to do to get through the holidays.

Peace and grace this holiday season.

winter background

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