It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least it’s supposed to be! No one wants to be around a ‘Grinch’ as the holidays approach. Even so, there was a time that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes the moment I walked around my local super market and noticed Christmas décor already overtaking the garden section. Unlike the general consensus, I was one of the strange ducks that didn’t leap for joy once candy canes and holiday cheer graced every store shelf. Christmas songs on the radio were quickly scanned over and mustering the energy to decorate a tree was at the bottom of my list.
My inner Christmas villain had not always been my heart’s default. In fact it had nothing to do with a dislike of jolliness and everything to do with heartache. A few years ago, I lost my two year old nephew in a tragic and sudden event. His absence had a way of resurfacing deep rooted feelings of grief, regret, and lots of ‘what if’s’ around the holidays. As a child and family counselor, I had to learn a lesson that I often teach – I was not alone. There are many clients I’ve worked with who experience significant emotional challenges as the holidays approach. However, navigating this time of year, after the loss of a loved one is hard no matter who you are.
Christmas time in our culture has become a season of giving and receiving. Things and experiences are vying for our attention. However, Christmas and death are opposites. While the festivities around us focus on receiving, death on the other hand is about having something taken away. There is nothing superficial about the grief that follows the loss of a loved one. But grief, if we let it, can give something back. Experiencing grief does not mean that we have to only be worn down by our pain. Rather, by letting grief do its work on us, we can become increasingly filled up with compassion, more aware of life’s richness, more able to help others, and more able to help ourselves.
To anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one: I have a wish for you. May you enjoy what you can enjoy, endure what you must endure, and leave the rest for another year. This is one of those times I wish I had a magic wand to make everything better, so everyone could enjoy the holidays without any issues. I also wish I could give a straightforward answer as to the best way to handle the holiday season, but this is what I have found helpful:
Stick to self-care basics: Eating, sleeping, and maintaining hygiene may seem like a simple task but when you’re grieving, it can be a challenge. If you make small goals for yourself, start with the basics. It will make a world of difference when you can approach the day with fuel and rest.
Acknowledge your feelings: It really is ok to not be ok. It’s normal to feel sadness and grieve. Forcing yourself to be happy just because it’s the holidays will likely bring more stress and unmet expectations. Give yourself grace. Take time to cry and express your feelings. If you can verbalize your feelings yet, expression can be found in many outlets such as music, drawing, or writing.
Mark your loved one’s presence or absence: Set a candle, a photograph, a bouquet of flowers, or anything that may symbolize their presence at the table or in the home. Go through photographs of them. Your Christmas cards can even thank extended family for their support during the final days. Whatever it is, have something to encourage that they will not be forgotten.
Take people up on offers to help: Whether its food, driving you somewhere, or simply being present, allow yourself to be surrounded by those who genuinely want to be there for you. Company at times will do your heart some good.
Get physical exercise: If you exercised prior to your loss, try to maintain the same routine. If you did not exercise prior to your loss visit your doctor before embarking on a physical exercise routine. Physical exercise can improve the way you feel.
Reach out: If you feel alone or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. These groups and social settings can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
Take a breather: Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
Some options may include:
Taking a walk at night and stargazing.
Listening to soothing music.
Getting a massage.
Reading a book.
Seek professional help if you need it: Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for more than a few months and begin effecting other areas of your life, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. I personally, would be honored to walk alongside you and help in any way I may.
Erin earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington focusing on Psychology, Communication, and Social Work and her Master’s degree in Professional Counseling from Amberton University. She has a passion for counseling children, adolescents, parents, and individuals with an array of emotional, behavioral, social, and relational challenges.