People think of the holidays as being sentimental, romantic, nostalgic, with strong images of families. But for those who have lost a loved one those images, memories and expectations makes it more evident of what we do not have this year during the holiday season and what we have lost.
Sharp Hospice Care Supervisor of Social Services Laura Grayson said this can be extremely debilitating for those who have lost a loved one because they are experiencing sadness and loss rather than the joy that is expected during the holidays.
“They carry this pain or this burden because they do not have what the holidays are representing,” she said. “There is also another component which is a lot of uncertainty, many question that come into play this time of year. You have societal expectations of what it is supposed to mean to have the holidays, then you have questions with people who have lost a loved one on how I am going to survive this without my loved one being here?”
Grayson said the questions range from, “how can I celebrate, how can I feel joy, when so much of my heart is breaking.” She said for those who have someone in bereavement, it is up to family and friends to help them by looking at how to survive the holidays, how to create special memories, get appropriate gifts, coping strategies, and realize that this year is not going to be the same as next year, and different the following year.
“Time truly does influence how we are responding to the holidays during a time of grief,” she said.
Grayson said it is important to give yourself permission to feel the loss, feel your feelings. She said the feelings of grief, anger, fear, anxiety do not disappear because there is a holiday on the calendar.
“Do not let the expectations of the holidays pass judgement on yourself,” she said. “If you are experiencing joy, love, tenderness, you give yourself permission to feel that as well. Allow the grieving to continue regardless of the time of year you are in.”
Grayson said the other thing people experience with depression or any other challenges with grief is turning to other people for support.
“This is not a time to be alone,” she said. “Grief is a person’s individual response, and mourning is the public display and support you get to the loss. It is through mourning that we heal. It is extremely important to remind people in grief that you need other people and need to have a support system in place. You need to find somebody who is able to meet your needs.”
Grayson said that means someone who listens, someone who does not judge your grief, and that these support people might not be the ones that you expect. So a person in grief needs to expand their resources to find the person or persons who can meet those individual needs and support them in different ways.
Grayson said what makes a large difference is being able to take charge where you can.
“This time in our life, so many things are out of control. We feel out of control. We feel things are happening to us. In looking at the holidays, we want to look at things that we can make decisions about, what traditions and rituals we can have some control over, and how is that going to make you feel better and not as depressed,” she said. “Look at what traditions are important to keep this year even though your loved one is gone. Then look on how you can make that tradition continue.”
Grayson said perhaps, some may feel that some traditions may not be able continue without their presence, so then there is the choice of what you would like to do in place of that tradition.
“What you are doing is thinking about the person and the holiday, what their absence is going to mean, and how you are going to make choices to keep them present through tradition, or to make choices to do something different so it is not hurting or causing as much pain,” she said.
Grayson said she had a very traditional family, the whole family would come over, her mother created an elaborate meal for everyone, then cleaned it all up while the rest of the family sat with full bellies. She said after her father died, not only did she not have the energy for that, but she also no longer had the desire for it.
“All she could feel was the absence of my father,” she said. “We as a family sat down and talked to her and asked her what she wanted to do for Thanksgiving. She said she just could not cook this year.”
Grayson said she wanted the family around her for the holiday, so as a family, they chose to break tradition and turned that Thanksgiving into a potluck.
“My mom wanted the tradition of family to continue, but she was not able to continue the tradition of her cooking,” she said. “So, we compromised. We did not all sit around with the fine china. We ate with paper plates and plastic utensils.”