When I was little, one of my older relatives on my mother’s side was always a little subdued at our annual holiday gathering. She’d laugh along at jokes, smile when the children tore into their presents, and bring her famous pumpkin roll for the dessert table, but she rarely started any conversations and often seemed to be going through the motions more than genuinely enjoying herself. It wasn’t until I was somewhere around 10 years old that I asked my mother about it and found out that this relative had suffered a late-term miscarriage on Christmas Day a couple of decades previously.
Because I was young then, this explanation sort of made sense to me, but to be honest I found it a little difficult to understand why a baby that this relative had never known and who died more than 20 years ago was still causing her so much pain every year.
Now that I’m older and have had more loss in my own life, it’s not mysterious to me at all; grief can soften over time, but it usually doesn’t just go away completely, especially when you add the holidays into the mix, a time when advertising, tv programming, and sometimes family members themselves all put increased pressure on you to manufacture extra happiness.
The older you get, the more likely it is that your holidays will be tinged with grief and loss in some ways. This might be a temporary loss that you eventually move past, like a suddenly lost job or the end of a relationship you cared about, or it might be a permanent loss, like the death of someone you held dear. Either way, though, you should make every effort to take it easy on yourself if you’re grieving this holiday season by allowing yourself to do the following things.
Feel free to sit out any activities that you’re not up for.
You may feel pressured to throw yourself into all the activities you’d normally do over the holidays, for a variety of reasons. You may think that a sense of normalcy will help you feel better, or that other loved ones will be disappointed if you don’t participate in usual traditions. However, there is no holiday cheer police that’s going to come get you if you decide you’re just not up to attending the annual gathering at grandma’s house this year. Loved ones might miss you and be disappointed, but they’re not going to be upset with you for feeling normal human grief. And forcing yourself into a setting you’re not ready for yet won’t help the grieving process. Healing takes time.
Avoid the temptation to apologize or make excuses.
If you do need to sit out from some activities this year, you’re going to be tempted to either make up fake excuses for why you’re doing so or apologize profusely for doing so. Try to resist this temptation. If you lie or fall over yourself apologizing, you’re sending yourself the message that there’s something wrong with what you’re doing, maybe even that there’s something shameful about it. There’s not. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to need time to grieve and to want to do so on your own terms. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be polite about it, but it’s absolutely fine to just say something like, “I appreciate the invitation, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it this year. I’m still trying to work through my grief and I don’t think that attending this year would be good for me.” Anyone who really loves you will respect that.
“Focus on what you can control.”
This advice from Psychology Today’s Amy Morin means limiting your participation in things you can’t control and looking for ways to increase what you can control during your grieving process. For example, if you’re out shopping, you can’t control that holiday decorations emphasizing joy, peace, and family are everywhere, probably increasing your pain. But you can control whether you go holiday shopping at all. You can do your shopping online, or ask a supportive friend to pick up some things for you if you know they’ll already be out doing their own shopping.
Change a tradition or start a new one.
Let’s say there was something you always used to do during the holidays with your mother who’s recently passed away, like baking cookies. It might seem like a good idea to keep up this tradition while you grieve as a way of remembering her and honoring her memory. However, this might only be a good idea if you’ve dealt with your grief thoroughly over time. If the grief is still fresh and new, then diving back into a tradition this way might just bring up a level of emotions that you’re not ready for. Instead, consider starting a new tradition, or adapting an old tradition. For instance, maybe instead of baking all the cookies you used to bake with Mom, you and your siblings could each make a new kind of cookie and bring them to share.
Seek out help if you don’t think you’re handling the grief well on your own.
Writing for the Harvard Health Blog, Dr. Anthony Komaroff says, “Although grief is nearly universal, it expresses itself in many different ways, and sometimes resembles major depression. Frequent crying spells, depressed mood, sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite are common during the bereavement process.” It’s important to note that even though grief can resemble major depression, the two are not the same; symptoms of grief like the ones Dr. Komaroff mentioned are very common and usually pass with time, while major depression often involves such symptoms without any clear reason and does not let up over time. However, it’s possible for grief to eventually develop into major depression, particularly if it’s not dealt with well. If you feel like your grief isn’t getting noticeably easier to deal with over time, then it’s important to consult a professional to help you. Consider starting therapy with a grief and loss specialist, or find a grief and loss support group near you (which is a good alternative if you can’t afford to start seeing a therapist).
When you’re trying to get through the holidays with feelings of profound grief and loss, it can feel like you’re the only one in a sea of happy, smiling people. But keep in mind that this could not be further from the truth; the holidays trigger such feelings for huge numbers of people. If you take steps for self-care, though, then you can get through this difficult season in a way that’s at least mindful of your own health, even if the healing process continues as part of your life well after the holidays are over.
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