Grief and the holidays
OpinionGuest columnist

Grief and the holidays

How do we manage our grief and deal with the overwhelming demands of the season?

Photo by Wayne, courtesy of
Photo by Wayne, courtesy of

The holiday season is a time for joy, family traditions and celebration. But for those of us who are grieving the loss of a loved one, this can be an especially difficult time. All around us are the sounds of the season, the memories of past holidays and the constant reminder that our lives have changed.

When we have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can evoke a wide array of emotions and pain, both mentally and physically. Our hearts feel increasingly heavy.

We are often unsure we can even get through the day. Our lives are different now, and we wonder if we should try to celebrate the season as we had before, or just bury our heads in the sand and do nothing.

Our family and friends, though well meaning, can also contribute to our pain and confusion by expecting us to uphold old traditions and do things just as we have always done them. A time that is supposed to create joy and family unity can now be the source of family division. Family members may feel it is time for you to “get on with your life.” They may not realize your need to honor the memory of your loved one as you work to negotiate the holiday.

So, how do we manage our grief and deal with the overwhelming demands of the season?

First, we must understand that honoring our feelings and our individual grieving process is essential to our emotional well-being. Grief is a highly personal experience and each of us must deal with our feelings and emotions in our own way. People who are grieving often cycle though a host of emotions. During a holiday, we are likely to experience increased sadness, loneliness, frustration, anger and depression.

Thoughts of our loved one are often intense and all consuming. We may find that we are unable to control our tears.

If we are fortunate enough to laugh, we might feel a surge of guilt — “How dare I laugh when my loved one is gone?” Remember that feeling good and laughing is your body’s way of letting you relax and regain some strength for a few moments during grief. How many of us really believe that our loved ones would not want us to laugh?

All emotions are common during the grieving process; however, the intensity of these emotions is heightened during this season.

Your physical needs will also become apparent very quickly. You may feel increased fatigue as you manage your daily tasks. Getting enough rest and eating a healthy diet is the first step in keeping up your strength. Our resistance is lowered during the grieving process and we are more susceptible to illness; therefore, it is imperative that you get enough rest. You may also discover that you are unable to concentrate well while doing tasks. Be aware of this when scheduling projects and activities. Pace yourself. If you promised to bake cookies, for example, bake your old standbys instead of trying a new fancy recipe.

To help reduce stress and increase your sense of well-being, it is also helpful to exercise. You don’t have to join a gym; sometimes a simple walk can work wonders.

Be aware that masking your feelings with excess alcohol, excess food or abusing any substance can have adverse effects. The temporary relief that substance abuse can bring is short-lived and you are often left with intensified grief.

Taking care of yourself during this time is essential. Remember that it is OK to feel sad.

Even people who have not experienced a major loss can feel pressure, depression and fatigue from the holidays. Be kind to yourself.

It is also OK to feel good. Give yourself permission to laugh — you are in no way being disrespectful to the memory of your loved one.

Find someone that you can confide in. Each of us needs an outlet for emotions that are bottled inside of us. Seek out family and friends who are caring and compassionate and who understand your need to express yourself.

Try to surround yourself with people who have a positive influence in your life.

Finally, when you feel the need…cry. Crying helps you both physically and emotionally. It reduces stress and calms anxiety. Ignore advice that tells you to be strong.

You are going through an experience that is emotionally and physically draining. The holidays will be different this year and in the future. Lower your expectations that things are going to be as they were before. You can still have a meaningful holiday. Traditions may change, but the love you share remains. PJC

Jan Kellough is the bereavement coordinator for Sivitz Hospice & Palliative Care at the Jewish Association on Aging. Join her for “Grief At The Holidays” counseling sessions, (free and virtual), Wednesdays, Dec. 1, 8, and 15, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Details and link here.

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