Coping with Grief during the Christmas Season

Submitted by Tracy Gregory/Family and Consumer Science Agent/MSU Extension-Winston County.

The Christmas season is upon us and for most it is a time for fellowship with family and friends, the yummy smell of dressing and pies baking in the oven and the sights and sounds of lights, carols and excited little ones.  But, for many the holidays can be a time of sadness and loneliness.  

Experiencing the loss of a loved one in the routine of daily living is difficult enough and most of us realize that it is normal for those in mourning to feel a great sense of sadness and grief during the holiday season.  You may ask yourself, “What can I do or how can I give hope and comfort to the grieving during the holidays?”  Here are a few things you can do:

Be a good listener- One of the most precious gifts is the simple act of listening.  Well-meaning people at times feel that they must do something, quote scriptures, or have the answers.  Instead of answers, the grieving are comforted by people with understanding hearts whose sheer presence says, “I care.”  Your loved one may need to talk about what has happened, their feelings about it, or just to reminisce about their lives together.  Just be available to your loved one and listen.  

Help out with errands and other tasks- Depending on the situation, a grieving person may feel too overwhelmed with emotion to do even simple tasks; they may be having to deal with funeral arrangements or medical care; or they may be having to take up the slack for a spouse who is no longer around to help them.  

Encourage and support self-care- Encourage nutrition, rest and exercise to bolster their health.  Grief lowers the immune system in a time when the mourner is often not eating properly, having sleep disturbances and is not motivated to exercise.  A simple phone call or invitation for a stroll can provide a physical nudge as well as provide simple emotional support.

Be patient and understanding- If a loved one refuses to accept your invitations to dinner, etc., be patient and keep asking.  In time they will be ready.  Also, the grieving person may be angry and upset and take their anger out on you.  Understand that they are going through a difficult time and don’t hold it against them.

Encourage the unusual- Encourage your grieving friend or loved one to consider doing something different and out of the ordinary during the Christmas season.  Rent a cabin or go on a trip to some place different.  Buy new ornaments for a smaller tree instead of decorating with special family ornaments.

Keep in touch- Write letters, send sympathy cards or flowers, text or call periodically.

Pray- If your loved one is not religious or is offended by prayer, pray for them when you are alone.  Prayer has been known to have a powerful influence, even if the object of your prayers doesn’t believe in it!  James 5:16b says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Now for the person grieving, here are some strategies for survival:

No simple guidelines exist that will take away the hurt you are feeling, however, the following suggestions may help you better cope with your grief during this joyful, yet painful, time of the year.

Talk about your grief- During the holiday season, don’t be afraid to express your feelings of grief.  Ignoring your grief won’t make the pain go away and talking about it openly often makes you feel better.  Find caring friends and relatives who will listen without judging you.  They will help make you feel understood.

Be tolerant of your physical and psychological limits- Feelings of loss will probably leave you fatigued.  Your low energy level may naturally slow you down.  Respect what your body and mind are telling you.  And lower your own expectations about being at your peak during the holiday season.

Eliminate unnecessary stress- You may already feel stressed, so don’t overextend yourself.  Avoid isolating yourself, but be sure to recognize the need to have special time for yourself.  Realize also that merely “keeping busy” won’t distract you from your grief, but may actually increase stress and postpone the need to talk out thoughts and feelings related to your grief.

Talk about the person who has died- Include the person’s name in your holiday conversation.  If you are able to talk candidly, other people are more likely to recognize your need to remember that special person who was an important part of your life.

Do what is right for you during the holidays- Well-meaning friends and family often try to prescribe what is good for you during the holidays.  Instead of going along with their plans, focus on what you want to do.  Discuss your wishes with a caring and trusted friend.

Embrace your treasure of memories- Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved.  And holidays always make you think about times past.  Instead of ignoring these memories, share them with your family and friends.  Keep in mind that memories are tinged with both happiness and sadness.  If your memories bring laughter, smile.  If your memories bring sadness, then it’s alright to cry.  Memories that were made in love-no one can ever take them away from you.

Express your faith- During the holidays, you may find a renewed sense of faith or discover a new set of beliefs.  Associate with people who understand and respect your need to talk about these beliefs.  If your faith is important, you may want to attend a holiday service or special religious ceremony.  As you approach the holidays, remember: grief is both a necessity and a privilege.  It comes as a result of giving and receiving love.  Don’t let anyone take your grief away.  Love yourself.  Be patient with yourself.  And allow yourself to be surrounded by loving, caring people.

Resources: Center for Loss and Life Transition, by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.; FamilyLife