Honoring lost loved ones can help ease grief
Despite the wealth of books and blogs on the topic, the experience of grieving is, in many ways, uncharted territory. Grief is personal and variable. You may think you know how you will handle a loss, or you may be completely blindsided by the intensity of your emotional response (or by the lack of one). How we grieve the loss of a parent may differ from the grief we experience for a spouse or a child. How one person grieves may be very different from how another person grieves.
What grief looks like depends on many factors including personality and coping style, life experience, faith, and the nature of the loss, according to Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. “Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years,” they write. “Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.” (Smith, Segal; 2015)
At holiday time, grief can be magnified, whether the loss was recent or not. Traditions that are tied to a specific person can be difficult to face when that person is gone. “…thinking about the empty chair at the holiday table may intensify grief in all its complex manifestations: sadness, anger, resentment, and maybe even guilt about the loss…” says Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. (Hartwell-Walker, 2013) Contending with a broad range of emotions at once is a lot to manage at any time, but all the added activity and expectations the holidays bring can make it even more challenging.
On the other hand, perhaps you feel guilty because you are moving on. Science shows that coping reasonably well is quite normal. George A. Bonanno, Ph.D., researched the science of grieving and wrote about it in his book, The Other Side of Sadness. He explains that in general, bereaved people cope pretty well. Despite the pain of the loss, they are able to continue through life, and eventually the pain lessens. Bonanno shares that we are capable of joy even while we are grieving. “We experience sadness and other emotions in short bursts, and in between we get a bit of a break, maybe even a laugh or a smile.” He refers to “anniversary reactions” which may come on a major holiday, acknowledging that these can be intense during the first few years following a loss, but “for most people they usually last no more than a few hours.” (Bonanno, 2009)
Hartwell-Walker offers some helpful tips to help anyone who is grieving through the holiday season:
- Choose how to spend your time
It’s okay to want to bow out of some winter holiday events that emphasize family and togetherness when you are feeling alone in a new and painful way, says Hartwell-Walker, but she advises carefully considering both options. “Sometimes being alone makes the aloneness much too hard to bear. Sometimes being in a crowd is overwhelming. Only you know what is best for you.” Give it serious thought, she advises.
- Let someone else host
If you have always been the go-to host, it may be time to give someone else a turn. “Some people like getting lost in the details of planning and managing a dinner for twelve. But if you are one of those who finds it just too hard to make a party when in mourning, know that it’s okay to be ‘selfish’ in times like these and to beg off.” She adds that if you do host, to at least ask for and accept help.
- Let others know it’s okay to share stories
Others around you are often unsure whether or not it is okay to talk about the person who passed. Talking about the person is the best way to keep them from being truly lost. “Let people know that as hard as it is that the person is no longer with us, it’s important to remember the good times, to laugh about funny things they did or said, and to acknowledge that he or she is missed,” says Hartwell-Walker.
- Consider starting new traditions
Hartwell-Walker suggests that if the usual celebrations are too painful, doing things differently or going to a different place may be helpful.
Finding ways to honor your loved one during the holidays is a positive, proactive way to help you through your grief. There are many simple things you can do that can also become new traditions. Here are a few examples:
- Light a special candle in honor of your loved one.
- Create a scrapbook or photo album filled with memories of your loved one.
- Buy your loved one a gift, and donate it to someone in need.
- Make a charitable donation or create a scholarship in your loved one’s honor.
- Blow bubbles; let them go with special wishes for your loved one.
- Take some time to reminisce about your loved one with others.
- Bake your loved one’s favorite treat and take it to someone who can’t get out and about.
- Decorate a small tree or wreath and donate it to a hospital, shelter, nursing home, or anyplace that would appreciate some extra holiday cheer.
- Attend a performance or sporting event, or go to a restaurant that reminds you of your loved one.
- Participate in a charity race in honor of your loved one.
Remember, grief is normal and there are no rules. Be gentle with yourself and be sure to eat well, get enough sleep and even pamper yourself a bit. Allow yourself the time and space you need to grieve. If, however, you find that you cannot move through it on your own, there are resources including support groups and professional therapists to help you through the process.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2013). The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2015, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-empty-chair-at-the-holiday-table/
Smith, M. and Segal, J. (2015) Coping with Grief and Loss – Understanding the Grieving Process. Helpguide. Retrieved on December 15, 2015, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief-loss/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm
Bonanno, G. (2009) Grief and bereavement during the holidays: What can science tell us? Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 15, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thriving-in-the-face-trauma/200912/grief-and-bereavement-during-the-holidays-what-can-science
Myhealingplace.org (n.d.) 25 Ways to Honor Your Loved One. Myhealingplace.org. Retrieved on December 15, 2015, from https://myhealingplace.org/article-holidayideas.htm