Coping with grief during the holidays

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 @ 10:15 AM

Coping with grief during the holidays is often difficult as you are not likely to feel merry or bright while everyone else is. To misquote Forrest Gump, Christmas can “be like a box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get”. You may get a peppermint mocha kind of Christmas but more likely if you are experiencing grief your Christmas will feel more like an empty box of chocolates– a sad and empty reminder of what was.

Holiday festivities can be an important way to maintain a sense of fun, tradition and family connections though you might feel depressed as the holidays approach. Instead of your usual energy and excitement, you may feel exhaustion and dread. If it is your first holiday without your loved one, you may even feel fear and despair. You may fantasize of skipping the holidays all together. Navigating the expectations of other family members can also be overwhelming. Some members of the family may want everything to be just the same while others may want to change everything up.

What is important though is to identify your needs and then communicate those needs to your loved ones. Most of us know that this is easier said than done – you may not even know what your needs are as grief clouds everything and makes it hard to think. You may be too sad and overwhelmed to identify your needs. That is ok too.

While past holidays may represent fun there is always stress around the holidays. Grief creates little margin for dealing with stress. If you are the one that holds the family get-togethers, ask someone else to do it. Or if someone offers to hold the holiday, take them up on it. Take the burden off your shoulders. Instead let yourself be served.

Or do something entirely different. If you usually stay at home for a cozy “White Christmas” consider going somewhere warm to celebrate. Or visa versa. Think about creating new traditions that will honor your needs or just a temporary “ritual” that will help you cope.

If the grief you feel has to do with separation or estrangement from family, then this is a great way to start fresh. The ways to cope are as different as there are types of people and it is all ok. You may get some kickback to doing the holidays differently but with some vulnerable conversation with your loved ones, hopefully you can come up with a compromise.

How to honor a loved one who has passed away:

Develop rituals of grief. Give yourself special times and ways to honor and remember your loved ones. We as a society used to have prescribed rituals for grieving. Some of these rules may have been too rigid but they often gave loved ones and community members a way to respect those who are grieving and a way to remember that lost loved one. Wearing an armband or the color black would alert the community to recognize and care for those who are grieving. We don’t have those rules and rituals anymore. We are often afraid to face death and the deep feelings of loss but it is vital to give yourself time to grieve. And to give yourself ways to grieve.

Consider an empty chair and honor your loved one with a spot at the table. Share happy stories and lessons learned from them. Follow up with traditions that were special to your loved one. Write letters to them, listen to their favorite music, or make their favorite holiday dish.

If all of this leaves you unable to function, then don’t do it. In the future you will be able to do this. There is no timetable or perfect way to honor your loved one. This ways you honor your loved one can be very private or public.

When you are learning how to cope with grief it is important to be compassionate and patient with yourself. Be careful of your expectations for yourself. As a matter of fact, practice lowering your expectations. Be aware of your need to take breaks to grieve or just to do “nothing”. You do not need to be productive during this time. Grief often comes in waves. Some waves you can predict–like on memorable dates but other waves can hit you out of nowhere, even when you are feeling good. Some say that they find the lead up to the holiday or anniversary is often worse than the day itself. But others are crushed on those days. Have compassion for yourself if you cannot handle things. But also don’t feel guilty if you are able to have times of joy and fun. This does not mean you don’t love them or have forgotten them. It just means you are developing a new journey of joy and grief.

Remember to try to keep up routines of eating well and moving your body. Even if it is hard it will help your body process grief. And this may help you feel a bit better too.

You may be judged by family members or friends for your decisions. That can be so rough especially as they may be grieving too. Remember everyone grieves differently. There is no “right way”. Be compassionate as you navigate the new landscape without your loved one. It is all new. It is all different and while you will never stop missing your loved one, you will learn how to navigate this new landscape. While grief never goes away, the waves will not consume you even when it feels like they may.
As a person of faith, remember that God “draws near to the brokenhearted”. He promises that “He will be with you and will not forsake you”. You are not alone. After all, Jesus was “a man of sorrows and well acquainted with grief”. He is there for you no matter what. While that doesn't take away the grief or bring your loved one back, I hope you can feel His comfort when you feel so alone. Finding a counselor who understands your faith can help you sort through the anger and disappointment you are likely to feel. We specialize in Christian Counseling and can come alongside you as you grieve and struggle with unanswered prayers or questions. You can set up an appointment here.

When does grief become depression?

If you are still overwhelmed, increasingly depressed and unable to function it is important to seek help. If you were depressed before your loved ones death you are at higher risk for complicated grief and depression. The symptoms of grief and depression are pretty much the same so it is hard to tell without knowing what is “your” normal. But here are signs that you may need professional help:

You cannot go to work or get out of bed

You are not caring for yourself or children well

You are drinking or using drugs to cope

You are isolating from friends and family

You are having suicidal thoughts

You feel stuck and unable to move on after a prolonged grieving period

Your loved ones are worried about you

Finding a grief counselor:

Searching for a grief counselor near you is certainly easier with the advent of the internet. You can search online by typing into your search bar “Grief counselor near me” or type in your zip code instead of “near me”. Make sure the counselors you find understand grief and loss and are licensed to provide counseling in the state you reside. Many counselors are full so make sure to ask if they are taking new clients. See if the counselor offers a free consult so you can get a sense of their expertise in grief as well as if you feel a connection with them. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to find someone that you connect with so don’t give up.

If you have insurance, you can check to see if the grief counselor or agency is “in network” with your insurance. If they are out of network and you really like them call your insurance company to see what your “out of network” benefits are. Your company or insurance may also provide a number of free employee assistance counseling sessions.

If you are in Illinois or Florida, we at Hope Reins provide grief counseling. We provide online counseling, art therapy for grief (scroll down to read the bio of Felicia-Marie Nicosia, LCPC), Christian Counseling even equine assisted therapy for grief and after all horses make great listeners and they rarely give bad advice! ;) .

To find a grief counselor in Illinois or Florida you can call 847-612-4309 or fill out the contact form. If you would like to find out more about equine therapy in Hampshire, IL. You can read a bit about our counselors here.
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Resources for Grief:
You may feel guilty reaching out to friends and asking for help but most good friends will want to help. Sometimes they are not equipped to handle some of the more complicated feelings about grief and loss and that is when online or in-person grief support groups can help. There are many free resources. Start with a general search for Grief Support Groups and Grief Resources. If you would like in person then check for grief counseling near me or put in your zip code. Many local churches, hospitals and community centers have free support groups.

Research shows that those who feel supported fare better. In a 2019 study posted here the authors found that “perceived social support was significantly associated with decreased grief difficulties, depressive symptoms, and suicidality, as well as with increased personal growth”.