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How to Manage Grief During the Holidays
by Dr. Ally
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December 10, 2018

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How to Manage Grief During the Holidays

It’s a few days before Thanksgiving, and you reach for your phone to talk to your Dad, your heart sinks into your stomach, and your mouth goes dry. You realize he’s gone. How can the holidays ever be the same without him? This wasn’t my exact experience this holiday, but as I leaned over to my husband to ask where his father was eating and if he needed a flight to Cali, my stomach dropped. We had just lost him months before.

Dr. Ally
Courtesy of Dr. Ally

Even as a mental health expert, I have to learn how to navigate personal feelings of loss and grief. Let’s be honest, grief can hit you hard, particularly during the holidays. It’s a time when it seems like everyone is in the spirit and spending time with loved ones dancing in the snow and drinking hot cider. It can leave those suffering loss feeling depleted and alone in a sea of celebration.  

This may be why depressive episodes and suicide attempts appear to spike during this time of year.  

The spike may be due to many factors including feelings of isolation, stress, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Seasonal Affective Disorder is similar to depression but arises during the winter months and is worsened by dark, dreary days where we aren’t able to absorb enough vitamin D. Mayoclinic.org describes it as “starting in the fall and lasting through winter.”

Credit: Citizen TV Kenya

Holiday grief is not exclusively for those who have lost people to death. There are many other types of losses that, when preceding the holidays, can have drastic effects on our moods and outlooks. Things like the loss of a job, the loss of a serious relationship, or even arguments among family members can result in isolation.   

Humans need one another on a biological and neurological level. Our ancestors had to live in groups. Because our soft skin, hairlessness, and lack of claws make us ill-equipped to live alone, we had to cluster for warmth and protection. Let’s be honest, very few of us could build our own home, but most of us probably live in one. Few of us can farm, but most of us have access to food. This is why social interactions are so significant for humans. We have even developed brain regions dedicated to making sure we understand the feelings of others so we can be empathetic enough to stay in the group. They are called mirror neurons and live in our frontal lobes. Socialization is literally a life or death issue for humanity.  So, when we lose one of these connections either to some type of termination or death, to an extent, our sense of survival is at risk.

This article probably won’t eradicate your grief, because grief is a process and unfortunately must be experienced, but I hope to comfort those of you grieving and educate those of you that love, cherish, and support the bereaved.

Do’s and Don’ts to Manage Your Grief During the Holidays

Do’s

Create new traditions

Our holidays reflect our lives in that they are typically very patterned. We have the same box of decorations, we go to the same houses, eat the same foods, and see the same people. So when our holiday pattern is thrown into chaos by a loss, it can be reassuring to develop a new pattern altogether. This pattern can include the person we lost, or not, but choose one that highlights positivity. This can be things like setting a seat for your loved one at the table, having pictures of them in the kitchen, releasing a balloon, or having everyone talk about their favorite memories of the recently departed. It’s ultimately up to you and your family. But integrating a new tradition can help you focus on the beautiful parts of your loved one’s life.  

Photography by Christian Adkins

Make a schedule

The holidays can get very busy and generally overwhelming even if you haven’t suffered a loss.  Anyone that has lost someone knows how physically exhausting mourning can be, and the last thing you need is too many things on your plate.  Making a schedule can help you plan for your holiday season and ultimately figure out what you can and can’t do. We can’t do it all. Focus on the events that feature positive people that you know will be uplifting and things that ultimately recharge your batteries. You don’t have to attend everything but need the social interaction for balance.  

Ask for help

There is no shame in asking people to help you. This may mean that you don’t make your famous pound cake this year, but that’s fine. Outsourcing some of the more difficult aspects of the holidays in a year when you just can’t is fine. If the people around you are truly supportive, then they will understand. It also goes without saying that you may need to schedule a few extra therapy sessions during the holidays as there are additional pressures. Don’t worry, your therapist is ready, make the appointments.  

Help others

There is no shortage of need in the world.  Sometimes it can be constructive to help other people in need around you. Volunteering your time at a homeless shelter, food kitchen, children center, or animal shelter can give you a boost during the holiday season. Engaging in charitable acts will undoubtedly help others, but it also helps you in the long run. It helps us realize that we aren’t alone in suffering and that there are systematic and sometimes tiny steps that can help us and others get back on our feet.  

Don’ts

Don’t ignore your feelings

In all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it can be really easy to ignore your sadness and muscle through. Ultimately, this isn’t helpful because your emotions are always there and will be there after you’ve ignored them. So set aside time to deal with negative feelings but have a plan. Cry, mourn, but have an out. This out could be a supportive person you could talk to if things get too heavy, an activity you know always makes you feel better, or a movie or song that always lifts your spirit. Some people are afraid to cry or mourn because of the fear that the tears will never end, but I assure you they do.

Man working out
Courtesy of Pexels.com

Don’t neglect the basics

You’re busy taking care of holiday things like gifts and food. But you can’t forget to take care of your body. Get enough sleep, eat balanced meals, and exercise. Our bodies rely on schedules and regularity and the holidays can throw all of our programs off. You may be in another time zone, eating different food, or engaging in less activity than regular. Work to keep your patterns as intact as possible because you will need the consistency.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Everyone processes loss in different ways. Don’t attempt to look at someone else and assume that they are coping better than you are. 1. You don’t really know how other people cope. They are human, so they are probably experiencing as many ups and downs as you are. 2. The healing process isn’t linear, so you never know where anyone is in their journey. 3. We all have bad days. It’s ok.

I cried writing this article thinking of all of my loved ones that I would never be able to celebrate with again. I also laughed a lot silently thinking of all the inside jokes and utterly ridiculous moments. I got contemplative during this article thinking of all of their collective advice. They are never truly gone because their lessons, legacies, and traits live on in you.  

This article is dedicated to my grandfather Joseph T. Powell, my father-in-law Lacy H. White, my childhood friend Tamara Phillips, and my college roommate Tenisha Brewer. I love and miss you all immensely.

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