3 Ways to Survive Grief During the Holidays
The days are dark now here in the northern hemisphere. For those of us grieving lost loved ones, the coming gray of winter is often a better match for our feelings than the gatherings and gifts that mark the holiday season. The experience of loss during the holidays can bring a new kind of lonely upon us.
However, in just a few weeks, this new pain will lighten. It is certain as the sunrise that there will be a day called “January 2nd” arriving in just weeks. But how do we get from today to that day? How do we endure and map a path of emotional survival?
Lower Expectations. This holiday season is a time of self-care. Healing from grief is like healing from a broken leg or a stomach flu. It is a process that you cannot control but must respect. Would you expect yourself to be dancing on a broken leg? Or think that you should be feasting if you had the stomach flu? Treat yourself like you are healing from something big and accept that you are not going to have your best holiday ever or even anything that you would consider normal. I decided the first holiday season after my sister died that if on any given day I was not hit by an anvil falling from the sky, then I could call that day a good enough day. By those standards, you can have a lot of good days.
Don’t Suffer in Silence. Every year my aunt has an open house on New Year’s Day. One year, a newly widowed friend of hers was going to be in attendance. She insisted before he arrived that no one mention his deceased wife in spite of the fact that his wife usually attended this event with him. When he entered the room, my aunt frantically waved at us behind his back, reminding us of her edict. A lot of us in the room knew it was wrong not to offer condolences or ask how he was doing in regards to his grief but were afraid of our hostess.
Make Some Plans. Your strategy this holiday season is to achieve maximum emotional comfort with minimal injury and aggravation (a good strategy for every holiday season.) In order to achieve this, you have to attempt a few plans.
- Plans of distraction. Plan to do some things that will be time-consuming. Maybe it’s reading the last eight books that won the Nobel Prize in Literature or watching a three-day marathon of the Three Stooges. Maybe it’s starting that home improvement project that is going to take forever or simply taking a day-trip to some place unfamiliar. Let an activity make a bid for your attention. There still will be plenty of time for grief and to be thinking of your loved one.
- Plans of escape. Plan on escapes that limit your exposure to grief triggers and annoyance. I knew one widow who announced she had to “Get out of Dodge” for the holidays and headed to Europe. Not everyone has the option or desire to escape the country but just like getting on an airplane, familiarize yourself with the emergency exits at the events you have to attend. You may never have to use them but just make sure that your car doesn’t get blocked in by five others if you have had enough of that young cutie in the family screeching, “The sun will come out tomorrow!” from the musical Annie. Your escape plan may be as simple as committing to attend an hour of an event that usually goes all afternoon or night.
- Plans of comfort. Plan something to which you actually look forward. Try coffee with an acquaintance who listens or getting that massage. Eat that special mac and cheese or indulge in steak. Get back to the gym or just get outside. Identify a few places at which you can unload some of your stresses and sadness, even if just for a couple of hours here and there.
There are many people who think mentioning loss or acknowledging a person’s grief is verboten. They fear doing so is an invasion of privacy or will prompt an emotional meltdown. Yet most people in grief know that the opposite is true; sometimes just the littlest bit of basic human acknowledgement stops grief from melting down.
Fortunately for us, my aunt’s friend gave himself and us a break. He took the initiative and mentioned his wife, how he was missing her and how he was doing. We were then able to express our affection, our support towards him in his loss, and how glad we were that he was there.
Similarly, Sam Feldman, founder of the National Widowers’ Organization recounts in my film, the Secret Map of Surviving Loss*, how he learned to navigate others’ silence and awkwardness with grief:
“I remember the first time I went to a dinner party after Gretchen died… I was the odd man out. I went in. I was astounded. No one said anything about Gretchen. I was so upset. I left. I realized subsequently that it was my responsibility to say ‘Gretchen really would loved to have been here tonight and she loved your food and she loved you guys and I really miss her tonight.’”
Sam concluded, “If I had been more open, it would have opened them up to being able to talk about it.”
So if you are in reasonably trusting company, break the ice. Talk about your loved one. Consider sharing what he or she enjoyed about this time of year and the people with whom you are spending it if that is appropriate for you. Don’t suffer in silence waiting for others to bring up your loved one. They may well be waiting on you.