Coping with grief over the death of a loved one during the holidays can be difficult. Memories of holiday traditions shared with a loved one who died may be painful. Somehow, mourners must navigate an emotional roller coaster ride during the holidays that can be bittersweet with nostalgia and happy memories, and also feel painfully cruel and isolating.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national nonprofit organization offering comfort and care to families of our fallen military troops, offers the following tips to help anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one during the holiday season.
Take charge of your holiday season. Anticipating the holiday, especially if it’s the first one without a cherished family member, can be worse than the actual holiday. Take charge of your holiday plans, and map out how you will spend your time. This can help relieve anxiety.
Make plans. Plan to spend the holidays where you feel nurtured, emotionally safe, and comfortable. Having a plan will help you navigate the holiday season and its activities. But remember to plan for flexibility, as you may not know how your emotions will respond, especially if it is your first or second holiday season after the death of a loved one.
Find sustenance for the soul. Your church, synagogue, mosque or other faith community may offer services, resources, and support networks for the bereaved. You may want to look for a support group for people who are grieving and have suffered a similar loss. Families who have lost a loved one serving in the military may find comfort by connecting with other survivors through the TAPS online community, peer support groups, peer mentoring or care groups.
Don’t be afraid to change your holiday traditions. Some traditions may be a comfort, while others can cause pain. Consider which traditions to keep, and which ones to forego this year. Do not feel like you have to do something because you have always done it that way.
Include your lost loved one in gift-giving. Give a gift on behalf of your loved one to someone else. Consider making a donation to a charity in memory of your loved one.
Create a tribute. Light a candle, display a favorite photograph, or set a place at the dinner table to represent the missing loved one. Consider writing a letter to your loved one about the holidays and your special memories with that person.
Be gentle with yourself. Realize that familiar traditions, sights, smells and even tastes, may be comforting, or may jolt your emotions. This is the time of year when you need to be careful with your emotions and listen to yourself.
Attend holiday functions if you can. Consider attending holiday parties and events, especially if you’ll be able to spend time with supportive family members and friends. Make an escape plan in case the event is more than you can handle. If you think a holiday gathering might be more than you can bear, it is ok to stay home.
Don’t pretend you haven’t experienced a loss. Imagining that nothing has happened does not make the pain of losing a loved one go away, nor does it make the holidays easier to endure. Even though holiday memories may be painful, they can be comforting. It is ok to talk with others about what you have lost and what the holidays mean to you.
Pay attention to your health. It’s often difficult for people who have experienced a recent loss to sleep. Make sure you get regular rest and drink lots of water. Do not over-indulge in sweets or alcohol. If you feel overwhelmed, talk with your medical care provider.
Take stock of both joy and sadness. Give yourself permission to feel joy as well as sadness. Don’t feel like you have to “be a certain way” because of your loss, or because it is the holidays. Just be yourself.
Express your feelings. Bottling up your feelings may add to distress, not lessen it. To express your feelings, use your creativity to write a poem, talk with a supportive friend, create a painting, or pen a journal entry.
Share your holiday season with someone else. There are many lonely people who might like to experience the holiday season alongside someone else. Consider volunteering with a local charity or soup kitchen, inviting a neighbor for a special holiday meal or including others in your holiday activities.
For more tips on dealing with grief during the holidays, go to the TAPS website at www.taps.org and look for our holiday survival guide.