The holidays are a stressful time for families, with more gatherings and high expectations for harmonious interaction. When a family member has died, the reality of the loss is painfully accentuated as the absence felt. The holidays, abounding in family memories and traditions, can activate and intensify grief, even years later.
It is difficult to grieve when other people are celebrating. However, winter is a natural time for grieving. As the life force retreats within and darkness predominates, nature seems to support and encourage us in our grieving. Healing can take place when we tend to our grief , acknowledge the changes that accompany loss, take care of ourselves (emotionally and physically), and integrate the loss of a loved one into our lives—including the holidays.
Here are six ways to care for yourself during this difficult time.
1. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time. Intense feelings may surface, so be gentle and patient with yourself. Accept whatever comes up; you might feel depressed, angry, sad, and lonely but you also might feel joy or relief. The first holidays after a loved one's death are often the hardest.
2. Protect yourself when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. Avoid situations that upset or overwhelm you (crowds, malls, big parties might all feel like too much stimulation.). Give yourself permission to scale back on sending our cards, decorating, shopping, etc. Learn to check in within with yourself before automatically accepting invitations; be willing to say no if that is what feels right. When you want to, seek out the company of supportive friends and family. Also, respect your need to be alone. Be kind to yourself.
3. Listen carefully to your body's needs for rest, good food and exercise. Your immune system is compromised when you are grieving so you are much more at risk for colds, flu, even pneumonia. The lungs are often especially susceptible when you are grieving.
4. Acknowledge your deceased loved ones in some way. One of my clients lit candles at midnight mass for her deceased father. Another offered a toast to his wife as the family sat down to their meal together. Another picked out and wrapped a gift she felt her mother would have given her. You can also honor the deceased by sharing stories, lighting candles, planting a tree, making a donation in their name, and putting their pictures out amidst the holiday decorations.
5. Take ten to twenty minutes each day to retreat to a special place in your home and reflect on your loss. Give yourself over to your grief during this brief time. Allow memories and feelings to surface. You may want to explore unresolved feelings, perhaps disappointments from past holidays, or you might want to savor special moments that you shared in past years. Use this time to check in with yourself; clarify how you can best take care of yourself that day. Once your short reflection time is over, turn your attention to your daily life; take a walk, call a friend, have a cup of tea. You can further explore the powerful strategy of using the daily sanctuary in my book Honoring Grief.
6. Explore new ways to celebrate the holidays, planning activities and creating new family rituals that are enjoyable and meaningful. It is important to recognize that the holidays will not be the same after the loss. The first year especially you might want to do something new. In the next holidays you can integrate these fresh possibilities into some familiar, comforting traditions. If you feel the holidays will be too overwhelming for you, give yourself permission to skip them this year. Plan other activities that feel nurturing. Even though you may resist doing so, it often helps to plan ahead so you have something in place rather than spending your time dreading or ignoring the approaching holidays. This is an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important for you during this season.
Above all, as you move through the holidays this year, be compassionate, kind and loving toward yourself. Hold yourself tenderly in your heart—accepting the emotional ups and downs.
If we allow it to, grief takes us deep into our hearts where we are reminded that we are grieving because we have loved—and the holidays, challenging as they can be, hold many opportunities for expressing and feeling that love.