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Coping with Grief in the Face of Holiday Cheer

Bayard & Holmes

Today we are pleased to welcome Sally Carey. Sally is a veteran Bereavement Coordinator for Hospice of Covenant Care in Westminster, CO. She has served the populations of the Denver area, helping people heal from the loss of their loved ones, for over ten years.

In recognition that the coming holidays are often the most difficult time of the year, particularly when we have suffered a deep and recent loss, we asked Sally to share her tips on how to make it through the holiday season.

Canstock Grief Statue

Ho, Ho, Hum

Coping with Holiday Cheer in the Face of Loss

By Sally Carey

The holiday season, under the best of times, brings it own stressors and expectations, which we have all learned to manage or mangle, for better or worse, over the years. Congratulations on learning how to keep a grain of your sanity intact, hopefully without leaving too many bodies in the wake of seasons past!

But what do we do when we’ve had some serious, life-challenging or life changing event like illness, job and/or home loss, estrangement, divorce or separation, or even a death, and the happy, happy holidays are assaulting us at every turn of the channel?

I know the fantasy of a Hawaiian vacation or leaving the country altogether might be appealing, but most of us don’t have that option. We still have to figure out a way to get food and find shelter from the storm of good cheer while holding down the fort.

What can help?

The answers are as unique and varied as each individual, and each setback or loss. Regardless of that variety, one thing that does help is to make a plan.

Making a plan can give you a sense of control when coping with circumstances that have been spiraling out of control.

Plan your script. What can you comfortably say when greeted by those who may or may not know about your changes or loss? What are the words that honestly and gently express your feelings and experience?  Try rehearsing a few phrases so you aren’t caught off guard. Anticipate their responses and your rejoinders along with questions to ask them that can shift the focus. These might be no-brainer responses in better times, but you might not be functioning at your peak right now. Have some ‘planned and canned’ statements in your protective arsenal.

Next, lower your expectations about what you can comfortably do – physically, financially, and socially.

Refocus on your values of the season and give yourself permission to reconsider how you want to express those.  If that means changing a tradition like giving gifts to everyone, sending cards to millions, hosting dinner, etc., think about the purpose of that tradition and find a simpler way to accomplish the goal.

For instance, instead of giving gifts or sending cards, make a donation to a charity or cause that is meaningful to you or to someone who has died. Do it in the name(s) of those you would normally give gifts, and it is a win/win for honoring values and including others. Another bonus is that typically the receiving organization will send out cards to those you’ve identified as donors so you don’t have to do anything else.

Instead of hosting a dinner, you could make a date to do something enjoyable together in the near future. You could also ask someone else to host it this time as a gift to you, or you could tone it down to a ‘cider and cookies’ gathering. It could be that this year, instead of any dinner, you prefer to go to a prayer service. Invite others to join you and maybe have coffee afterwards. A change in tradition does not mean you are forsaking a tradition forever. It just means you’re making it work for you this year.

If you are missing someone who has died, make a plan to remember & honor your loved one—a lit candle, some pictures on the mantle, a prayer service, a gift to their charity, a day of service or creating a service project in their name are a few ideas.

In doing this, you are creating new ways to maintain your enduring connection with the one you are missing. There aren’t any road maps for that challenge. Search your heart and maybe connect with other folks who have done this. You can also turn to your local grief support groups or hospice bereavement counselors to get ideas that are specific to you.

Most people want to avoid public tears and runny noses, so plan on how and when you may need to safely release your difficult thoughts and feelings before going out in public.

If you are “keeping a lid on it,” you will probably blow your cover at a less than ideal time and place. Letting yourself have the private down time for reflection and feeling and maybe falling apart will help you have control when you need it.

If you are out and about, always know where the nearest bathroom is in case you have to hide and wipe your tears and nose. Believe me. It’s not a pretty sight to be sniveling and snotting while asking for directions to the restroom! Your car can be a good safety zone too. It also helps to go places with a trusted person who can whisk you away and make explanations or apologies at the drop of a tear.

Go ahead and make some plans for limited sociability, but also make a Plan B, which could be to only stay a short time or to allow yourself a last minute cancellation.

Also, have an escape plan. That is, plan for a bit of escape in the form of pleasure and comforting activities. You need to balance sadness with enjoyment however you like to create that. And yes, it is fine to turn off the holiday music, TV, or annoying people. Find something else to help you tap into the love and kindness that is your well-spring any time of the year.

If you know someone who may be missing a loved one, simply inviting them to share their thoughts and feelings without trying to ‘fix’ them is a real gift.

Many feel they cannot share their sadness, as it isn’t ‘fitting’ with the season of happiness and joy.  Listen to them and honor their feelings. Letting them know they are normal even if they feel ‘out of it’ can be invaluable support for them. If you ask them to share some of their memories of the person or holidays past, it may bring up a tear or two, but it will surely affirm the value of their loved one and offer a treasured opportunity to share that with someone who cares.

The holidays during a time of loss can be devastating. But make a plan for handling people, give yourself plenty of down time, and remember that traditions altered are not traditions abandoned. And in all things be patient with yourself. This, too, shall pass.

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Our deepest thanks to Sally Carey, and many prayers for everyone working through grief, just trying to make it through December.

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19 thoughts on “ Coping with Grief in the Face of Holiday Cheer

  1. Pingback: Coping with Holiday Cheer in the Face of Loss « Bayard & Holmes

  2. I used to want to be the cock of the walk at family holiday get-togethers. I’d insert myself into the cooking and make a pest out of myself. They thought they’d get even by having me host. I was in hog heaven, feeding relatives and showing off. I grew up, emotionally. Now, if I’m invited to someone’s house I ask if I can bring something and if I do, it’s simple elegant and tasty.

  3. Sally, thanks so much for this. These are all great tips. From the other end of it, I always struggle with how to express sympathy for a friend or family member’s grief, and what to do to be of most help. I sure don’t want them to feel worse.

  4. Good advice, Sally. Dealing with a loss around a holiday always seems more difficult. Perhaps it’s the contrast with everyone else enjoying themselves. I’ve found a balance between sympathy and distraction has helped in the past.

  5. Wonderful post and advice, Sally.

    I’m of the Gloria-Richard-Adopt-a-Problem ilk. If you have a problem, it’s mine to solve. Feeling bad? It’s my job to cheer you up. This post smacks me with the God-did-not-die-and-put-you-in-charge reality bat.

    Your words will help.

    Listen more. Talk less. Empathize if I can. Sympathize if I can’t. And, install a brain-to-mouth, trap-and-destroy filter for “Oh! You know what I would do…?”

    • Suffering–our own and that of others–is uncomfortable, and it’s a natural response to want to alleviate it. It’s hard to accept that there are no short cuts through the pain for either ourselves or others. The best friends just stay or go as needed and let people know that when they are ready, they won’t find themselves alone. I have no doubt that you’re a really good friend. — Piper

  6. How very timely, I just lost my Mother 3 days ago, we lost my Dad one year ago. I thought last year was tough… ugh, glad to have read this. Thank you.

    • Hi Madge. First off, big hug. I’m so sorry for your loss. My mom passed on two weeks before Christmas a few years ago. I was broken for a couple of years after that. I’m so glad Sally’s article could be helpful to you. Many prayers for you and yours. — Piper

  7. Good advice. One of my daughters died five years ago – thirteen days before Christmas. I admit I’ve had trouble getting into the holiday spirit since then. I do try for my family, especially now with the new grandbaby but I’m always glad when it’s over. And I always hope I’ll feel more like celebrating the next year. One thing I’ve found that helps is to stay busy and NOT focus on the loss. I don’t have to like what happened – and I don’t, but I don’t have to wallow in it either.

    • Sounds like a very painful part of the year. *big hug*

      My mom passed right before Christmas in 2006. Not the same thing at all, but I still pause several times throughout December and talk to her with tears in my eyes, wishing she were present to share the holiday with her grandchildren. Her greatest regret was that she would not be able to see them grow up.

      Many blessings for you and your family.

      • Thanks, Piper. Hugs to you too. It’s not painful so much anymore as it is… I don’t know. I just can’t work up much enthusiasm for it – except for the being able to spend time with family part of it. But I will change that next year because the baby will be old enough to enjoy the holidays – and I’m going to make sure that she does. 🙂

        Losing a parent is really hard too. My dad died in 2003 and I still miss him, so I know how much you miss your mom. :/

  8. Sometimes, Piper and Sally, just having a post like this acknowledge how you’re feeling helps. Well, and a beautiful Allison Kraus song… 🙂 I was fortunate enough to have one of those trusted people, who more than once realized a meltdown was coming before I did and got me safely to someplace private. I can’t overstate the importance of that! May all who find this time of year a challenge come safely out the other side.

    • Sounds like you have some wonderful friends and loved ones. I’m so glad! *big hug* Thank you for sharing your experience.

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