Tidings of Comfort and Joy?
Facing the holidays after bereavement
When you’re grieving the death of a family member or friend, you may dread the holiday season. Thoughts of social gatherings, family traditions and obligations leave you anxious and overwhelmed. Your sadness can seem unbearable. You may wish you could skip these next two months and go straight to the routine of the next year—but you can’t. What can you do to lessen your stress and loneliness?
Holidays trigger tough emotions
You can start by learning what emotions are normal and to be expected when facing the holidays without your loved one. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed as this holiday season approaches, that’s very normal,” advised psychologist Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge, whose husband died. “You’re probably wondering how you’re going to handle this and are unsure of what course to take. I want to assure you that you can get through these holidays, and hopefully you can even find moments of joy.”
When you know what to expect, you won’t be rendered helpless as holiday events trigger unexpected emotions. Make a point to spend time talking with people who have experienced a past loss and have already been through a holiday season without their loved one. They can help you have an idea of typical emotions and emotional triggers to expect. These people can also provide much-needed comfort and support.
Creating a holiday plan will help
Another important step in surviving the holidays is to create a healthy plan for the coming season. “Planning does help you to have a little control, even when you feel totally out of control,” said Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge. A healthy plan involves making decisions in advance about traditions, meals, time spent with others, holiday decorating, gift-giving and commitments.
You will likely not have the energy or the interest in doing as much as you have in past years. Decide ahead of time which invitations you’ll accept, and let the host or family member know that you might leave early. Consider whether your decorating will be different this year: perhaps a smaller tree or simpler ornaments. If you cook or bake, cut back.
Make a list of every holiday tradition you can think of, from music to presents to outings. Then decide which traditions will be too difficult without your deceased loved one, which traditions you’d like to maintain, and what new traditions you can start this year.
Communicating with family and friends
What’s also helpful in facing the holidays is to communicate your specific concerns and needs with your family and friends. People in grief are often tempted to put on a mask and pretend things are fine, especially over the holidays. “I didn’t want to put on a damper on anyone else’s joy,” shared Mardie. “So I put on a happy face and tried to be the sister, the daughter, the aunt, that everybody wanted to see. Putting on that happy face was a heavier burden than I was emotionally able to carry at the time.”
Your friends may want you to “cheer up” and “have fun,” when that’s the last thing you want. Others will avoid you because they don’t know what to say and don’t want to make you feel worse. Some family members will give you wrong advice in a misguided attempt to help. All of these people likely mean well, but will only end up hurting you if you don’t communicate what you truly need from them.
As difficult as this may be, it’s important to tell people what they can do to help and what they are doing that isn’t helping. And if you don’t have the energy or inclination to talk to people face-to-face, then write your thoughts, concerns and needs in a letter or email. What’s important is that you are being honest and gracious in your communication.
In describing the first holiday dinner after she was widowed, Dr. Zonnebelt-Smeenge said, “It seemed like no one wanted to talk about my husband. I kept waiting for somebody to bring up [his name]. After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore. I excused myself and left and bawled all the way home. Later I decided maybe they were waiting for me to decide if it was okay to talk about him; maybe they were afraid if they said anything, they’d make me feel worse. From that time on when I went to an event, I found a way to let people know I wanted to talk about him and I wanted to hear their stories.”
So where can you find out what emotions to expect over the holidays, how to create a healthy plan and how to communicate with family and friends these coming weeks?