Loss and the Holidays: Help for Those Who Mourn

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Loss and the Holidays: Help for Those Who Mourn

By Kevin Berrill, MSW, LCSW

After a loved one’s death, many people struggle with how to handle (some might say “survive”) the holidays. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year can be times of connection, spiritual renewal and joy, but for many who grieve, holiday festivities are a painful reminder of their loved ones’ absence.

There is no escaping holiday music, advertisements, food, displays or the frantic pace. There is also no way to bring our loved ones back, but here are some ways to ease the pain and make the holiday season meaningful:

  • Allow feelings. When those we love die, it is natural to feel sad, angry, despairing, confused, numb, guilty or lonely. Ignoring or suppressing your feelings and pretending to be cheerful are likely to make the holidays more difficult. Sometimes, when we accept rather than resist our feelings, moments of happiness break through the clouds
  • Respect your needs. For some who are bereaved, holiday traditions can be comforting and meaningful. But if you have doubts about whether your usual holiday plans are right this year, it’s okay to break with tradition. Allow yourself to change where, how and with whom you spend the

Let others know if you aren’t up to buying presents. If you choose to participate in holiday gift-giving, keep it simple. For example, shop online, buy gift cards or buy the same item for each of your intended recipients.

  • Make a plan. Spontaneity is great, but having a plan, even if you decide to change it, is likely to give you a greater sense of control, making it less likely that you will end up feeling isolated or blindsided by others’ expectations and decisions.
  • Take care of your body. Try to get enough rest, nourishment and exercise. Remember, excessive alcohol and sugar can leave you feeling depleted and depressed. Stick as much as possible to your routines and eat sensibly.
  • Reach out. Allow yourself time for solitude if you need it. On the other hand, reach out to understanding loved ones if you want to connect. Let them know what you need—a cooked meal, help with shopping, someone to babysit the kids, prayers or just listening. Sometimes it helps to share feelings with others who are grieving. Many hospitals, churches and hospices offer bereavement support during the
  • Remember and honor. In death, our loved ones live on in memory. You can symbolically include them in your holiday observances: give to a favorite charity, attend a memorial service, volunteer to help others in need, gather friends or family to share stories about them or light a memorial candle.
  • Be supportive. If you love others who are mourning, refrain from fixing, advice-giving or pushing a holiday agenda. A thoughtful phone call, card or email can also make a meaningful difference.
  • Pause and breathe. At a time when so many around you are caught in an endless round of buying presents, give yourself the gift of presence, taking a sacred pause several times a day to refresh yourself and just be.

Kevin Berrill, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at Ann’s Place, a community-based cancer support center in Danbury, CT.

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December 4, 2019

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