Wake Me Up on January 2nd: Grief and the Holidays

Wake Me Up When it is January 2nd : Grieving During the Holidays. Living with loss when others are celebrating can be quite challenging and difficult.

Holidays such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays, and anniversaries can bring back a lot of happy memories for many of us as we think about old times spent with family and friends. However, for those grieving, the holiday season can be quite difficult, very sad and emotionally draining.  This can be especially true for those who have recently lost a loved one and who are experiencing their first holiday season since the loss.

The holiday season can be quite challenging for grievers as anywhere they turn they seem to be bombarded with happy, smiling people, festive holiday music, holiday shopping, talk of family gatherings, television ads depicting loving happy families, twinkling holiday lights, talk of parties and festivities.

Many grievers share with me that they so wish they could go to sleep and wake up on Jan. 2 when the holidays are behind them. They have a rough time often going into the holidays as many feel sad, lonely, and depressed. The joyful reminders for many can be painful to those grieving a loved one.

Their world or previous normal has changed and they need time to adjust to their new normal.  As Harold Ivan Smith wrote in his wonderful book, A Decembered Grief: Living with loss while others are celebrating, “A mall, at Christmas time, can be a most unfriendly place to a griever.”

During the holiday season, it is quite common to be asked by a smiling co-worker or an acquaintance,” So what are your plans for the holidays?” Grievers often share that they don’t know what to say in that awkward moment, since they may not even know what they will be doing for the holiday, as they don’t know how they will feel when the day arrives. Many grievers are met with many innocent greetings of- “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or "Happy New Year."

I tell grievers that I wish we could just say to each other “Christmas” or “Hanukkah” or "New Year"  as we are acknowledging the holiday but not adding the extra bit of “happy” or “merry” which can be the farthest thing from a grievers mind and heart. Some grieving folks share that they appreciate the gestures made by those around them that don’ know what to say or do but they realize they are just trying to be supportive.

Some people with good intentions, unfortunately don't acknowlege the griever's experience and may push or even guilt them into attending parties and gatherings when the person may truly not have the desire or energy to deal with all that comes from being around holiday festivities and happy people. It is important that the griever makes his or her own decision and is very gentle with themselves at this time. Self-care is extremely important and saying “no” can be a great way to care for one self.

There are some things that grievers can do to make the holidays more bearable and even possibly a little enjoyable.

Plan Ahead:

This is very important for bereaved people to do. Those grievers who have the hardest time at this time of year often are the ones who haven’t thought ahead about how they may deal with the challenges that they will meet. Since sleeping through the holiday season isn’t really an option, it is best to be proactive and plan ahead.

When you plan, you may experience some emotional pain. It hurts, but that is all part of your healing process. When the holidays actually arrive it may be less difficult than you thought it would be. Many grievers share that almost always the anticipation of the day was worse than when the actual day arrived.

Accept Your Limitations:

There are many decisions to be made around the holidays. Will you attend party and dinner invitations? Will you decorate your home? What is best for the children? What is best for you? Will you cook and bake? Will you send cards? What about traditions, will you forget about them just this year, try them out or create new ones? Will you visit the cemetery on the holiday or another place that reminds you of the person who died? How will you get yourself out of bed on the morning of the holiday?  Think about one or two of these questions at a time. Give yourself permission to be completely honest and make decisions that are good for you now.

Take Care of Yourself:

This is very important at the holiday time especially. It is not uncommon for grieving people to get sick following a loss. A griever’s immune system often takes a hit. It is very important especially with the added stress of the holidays to make sure you are getting enough rest and sleep, as grief requires a lot of physical and emotional strength.

It is important to try to eat healthy foods and drink enough water. Water helps to eliminate extra stress chemicals that the body produces, which can lead to stomach, upsets, headaches and fatigue. Try hard to get some regular exercise. Exercise reduces stress and helps your overall wellbeing. If you don’t currently exercise start slowly and walk. Work to increase you distance and speed.

Avoid excessive use of alcohol, which will only postpone the painful feelings and not eliminate them. Besides alcohol is a depressant, which isn’t going to help a griever who is already feeling, depressed at the holiday season.

Ways to Cope:

Accept help from others. Asking and accepting help is never easy.  It takes courage to ask for help.  Grieving during the holidays is a very important time to gather the strength to ask and allow others to help you. Soon enough you will be back to a place of helping others again.  It is common to feel short on energy when grieving so take people up on their offer to help. Let them pick something up for you at the store, maybe they can do shopping for you, go to the grocery store or even make a call for you to say you can’t go to a party.  Most caring people around grievers want to do something and giving them something to do makes them feel good.

Give yourself permission to feel however you feel. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel good. It’s okay to feel angry. It’s okay to feel relieved. Anyway you feel is really okay. It may even help to write about how you are feeling in a journal or talk to a trusted friend, relative or clergy person. If you don’t have anyone you can talk or you would rather talk to someone who doesn’t know you,  a great resource  is Contact We Care,  New Jersey’s Caring and Crisis Hotline. The number is 908-232-2880. They answer their phone 24/7 and it is confidential.

Lower Expectations. Go easy on yourself. You are going through a stressful time. No matter what you do you probably are going to feel less joyous as you did in the past holiday seasons. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the day or even smile and laugh. It will take time to adjust. Don't expect this holiday season to be like one in the past when you were not grieving. Life is different right now.

Confide in someone:

Find someone who will listen to you without feeling that they must solve your problems. This person will let you share anything on your heart. You will have permission to say whatever it is you need to say with out judgment.

Think about your belief system.  Is now a good time to strengthen your ties to your religious community?  Loosen ties?  Or change your beliefs to some extent to fit with any new lessons you may have learned from your grief process.

Do something special for yourself.  Buy yourself a gift in memory of your loved one, perhaps something you think they would want you to have. Pay someone to clean your house, get a massage, or see a movie. The Christmas after my mom died (she died on Nov 4Th) a relative sent me a check and told me in the note to do use the money to do something with my kids that reminded me of my mom.  We went to dinner at a restaurant she loved and went to a movie that she would have enjoyed seeing and then went out for her favorite ice cream. Loved that it was to be used on something that my mom would have liked. I have done the same since with a couple of other grieving friends and I think it is a very special way to help the griever to keep their loved one a part of the holidays. 

Give yourself time to cry.  It is okay to feel sad. Even those who haven’t experienced a loss recently may feel somewhat sad around the holidays. There are many expectations, memories and family gatherings that can bring up many different feelings for people.

Give yourself space to be alone when you need and want to. Many people who are grieving feel guilty that they may want down time alone for a bit. It can help with the healing process to take breaks from the busyness from life and retreat to a safe space and slower pace. However be on the lookout for isolating. Isolating isn’t a healthy thing to do when grieving.

Be selective with who you spend time with now.  Be with those who are supportive.  Spend less time with those around you who are not supportive or who even seem judgmental. Some family members may be difficult to be around when grieving, as they may not respect the way that you handle your grief. Limit your face time with those people now. It is part of your self-care that you must be vigilant about now.

Ways for Families to Handle Grief Together at the Holidays:

After a loved one has died some family members have different ideas about how to celebrate the holidays. Some don’t want to celebrate while others want to carry on past traditions despite the loss. The best thing to do is to talk openly about each person’s expectations and what roles each person will take on. Knowing ahead of time each other’s expectations can save a lot of upset later on.  We tend to think that others want to do what we want to do and often that isn’t the case. Listen to one another and respect each other’s thoughts and ideas.  Seek to understand where each person is coming from.

Some families share stories around the table of the family member who died. Some will place an empty chair where the person would have normally sat and light a candle or place a flower or other symbolic item in front of their seat. Some families  place a photo of the person at the seat they would have sat in. Some will observe a moment of silence or prayer to honor the memory of the deceased. These are just a few ways that some families help to keep the memory of the person who died and also keep him or her a part of the holiday.

Some families add photos of the person who has recently died, to their wreath on their door. They sends a message and  grants permission to guests and other family and friends who enter the home, to speak about the person who died.

Still others share that they ask family members to write down memories of the person and then they take turns opening those notes and reading those memories out loud during a holiday celebration.

Remember that each person grieves in his or her own way and time. Some will have a difficult time looking at the photos if the person has just died, and some will not yet be able to or want to share memories openly of the person who has died.  These family member’s feelings need to be respected and they may choose to remember their loved one in a more private way. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after a loss. The most important issues to keep in mind are respect, compassion and acceptance over each person’s unique grief process.  

With each holiday, anniversary, birthday or other special day that passes, a little more healing will occur.  If you find that it has been years since the loss and it is not getting easier, it may be a good idea to contact a grief counselor or a bereavement group.  For a great list of support groups in NJ contact: NJ Self Help Clearinghouse at : www.selfhelpgroups.org  or call 1-800-367-6274

"Grief is the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief we simply avoid each other." ~ Thomas Lynch

"You will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken. And the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through. It's like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly- that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp." ~ Anne Lamott

To all of you grieving, please be extra good to yourself now. Be gentle and take care of yourselves and those around you who also may be grieving during this holiday season.



For more information on grief and loss resources please visit my informative website: www.griefspeaks.com 

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Al Norton December 16, 2012 at 02:01 PM
Having lost my wife and mom to our daughter,earlier this year,this article truly hits home. Next season will be spent in Hawaii.!!!
barbara m December 16, 2012 at 08:49 PM
You sound like a wonderful, caring, generous person. Hopefully, while doing these charitable things in you own time of grief, you will meet someone who appreciates your kindness and loving spirit. My best wishes to you.
Sue Underwood December 19, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Thank you for such a well written column. There are "Blue Christmas" services, devoted to exactly this situation, which are offered to anyone for which this time of year is NOT a happy, joyous celebratory period. The (Episcopal) Church of the Messiah, 50 Rt 24 Chester (near Parker Rd.) will be hosting one of these on Saturday, Dec. 22 at 5:00pm. The evening Eucharist service features prayer, candle-light solitude, contemplation and selected music providing a calm and solemn service for those grieving or in pain. Bill, I relate to your "orphan" comment too. When both my parents died within 6 months of each other almost 6 years ago that was my reaction too. I congratulate you on being proactive to make new experiences for the holidays rather than looking backwards at the past celebrations. Good luck with your plans and here's to happier days!
B.Bennett January 02, 2013 at 10:15 AM
What town are the "Blue Chrismas" services in? We would like to go next year as we missed those this year. Thanks.
Larry Cataldo January 04, 2013 at 03:29 AM


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