Grief during the holidays: when derailing may put you back on track

December 12, 2018 Ross Robinson

No matter what your faith, cultural or traditional background, the approach of the holiday season is inescapable. For many reasons, it is hard-wired into our society, overflowing with hopes and expectations for how we should respond. Under the best of circumstances, we respond with joy and embrace moments of reflection. Others feel the pressure of hosting, gifting and trying to get it all done before it passes them by.  

For some, the holidays are complicated because they’re missing a loved one who has died. It’s not just the absence that makes it challenging, it is also the storm of actively grieving that competes with trying to be in the “spirit” of the holidays.

Do you remember right after you lost your loved one, and friends and family were sensitive to what you were going through…for a while? Then, they got back on course with their lives while you sat feeling left behind. Feelings of guilt, anger and isolation may have been part of your grief journey at that time. The busyness of the holidays may cause you to revisit some of those conflicting feelings. It can feel like the world is going on without you and the holidays don’t offer much other than reminders of what isn’t right in your world.

Here is a little secret: you are in charge of your holiday roadmap. At the risk of sounding provocative, you could think of honoring your grief as a way of derailing the holidays — but in a good way. Listening to your grief may actually guide you around the traps (if not the trappings) and pitfalls of merrymaking. Try trading expectations of the season with intentions for allowing your grief to guide you in making things as right as they can be through your unique holiday experience.

Some ideas to consider

If you don’t think decorating will bring you joy, let it go. If you aren’t sure, try doing it for 30 minutes and, if it doesn’t suit you, let it go, knowing that you at least tried. If you need a good cry and going through the decorations will help you do that, that’s okay too.

If you accept invitations to events hosted by others, leave yourself an out. You can tell them that you intend to participate, but ask if it would be okay for you to change your mind at the last minute. Remind them of your loss and the unpredictability of your feelings. That can be a tough one to decide. Sometimes, we don’t feel like doing something, and then we do it any way and end up feeling better than if we hadn’t done it. You may need to dig deep and trust your instincts. If you end up going and having a difficult time, you can chalk it up to having given it a try and learning from it. Socializing can be good for grief, but it needs to be the right kind of supportive socializing.

Maybe there is a new tradition you want to try this season or on a special day. You may want to take flowers to the cemetery or spend the day doing something in memory of your special person, such as volunteering or making donations to organizations as a memorial gift. Give yourself permission to think outside the box.

Some people set a place at the table for their loved one at a large family meal as a way of disarming the elephant in the room. Doing so invites conversation and the chance to share stories about your loved one’s favorite foods or how they contributed to past events.

The bottom line is there is no right or wrong when it comes to grief and the holidays. Follow how you feel. If you aren’t sure, check in with a supportive friend. The key is to plan ahead and provide yourself with options depending how you feel. It can be difficult to do your own thing when others have expectations of you, so allow for some negotiation with family and friends. This may not be the path you would have chosen, but this is your path. May it guide you through the holidays.

Ross Robinson is Grief Support Services Manager at Providence Hospice of Seattle.

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