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Grief and the holidays

Last Modified: November 26, 2019

Family Medicine

Loss and holiday

This post was written by Michael De Winter, MSW, LSW, bereavement counselor and social worker, Parkview Home Health & Hospice.

It goes without saying that the holiday season can be stressful. Many of us are planning for travel, preparing for large family gatherings and scouring store shelves in search of the perfect gift. For most of us, the holidays are a time of love, warmth and celebration despite these stresses and we generally take on these tasks with eagerness and enthusiasm.

However, for those caring for an ill family member or approaching the first holidays without a loved one, this time of year might feel very different. While there are no easy answers to these situations, there are things you and your family can do to make the holiday season a little easier.

When a loved one is seriously ill

When caring for a seriously ill family member around the holidays, there may come a point when you realize this might be the last holiday season you will spend together. What do you do with such an unsettling thought? How do you handle the emotional challenges that come from this awareness?

First, acknowledge the difficult reality with your loved ones. Too often, we keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves out of a fear that we’ll “just bring everyone down” and be a damper on what should be a festive time. However, it’s likely that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling and talking about the situation with your family could help to alleviate the stress you’re all carrying inside. It will be a difficult conversation and there will be tears, but when the matter is out in the open, a family can begin facing the situation together.

It’s also important to plan ahead. Discuss with your family what the holidays might look like this year. Whether your loved one is at home or simply unable to participate, things will be different and that’s okay. Don’t feel like you must keep the same traditions as last year. As a family, talk about which parts of your holiday are most important and which parts could be scaled down.

If your loved one can’t be home, take time to make their surroundings feel like home. Ask if it’s possible to decorate and bring their favorite foods or treats in. Also, be sure to communicate your religious and personal preferences to staff members so they can honor your traditions as well.

Finally, know your limits. Being with a dying loved one is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Certainly, take every chance you can to be with family and friends, but be careful not to overwhelm yourself. If something feels like too much, it’s okay to say no. Express your appreciation, but also share the reality of your situation.

When a loved one has passed away

For those whose loved one has recently passed, this time of year may represent an unwanted and painful reminder of that person and the memories you’ve shared together. In our work with bereaved families at Parkview Home Health & Hospice, we often hear people wish that they could simply skip them altogether – to be able to go to sleep in November and not wake up until January. Many fear that the painful reminders will simply be too much. These are all common thoughts and feelings, especially if it’s your first holiday season without a loved one.

Sadly, as with other aspects of the grief process, there is no easy answer to this dilemma. However, there are things you can do to make this time a little easier.

Plan ahead. Take some time to think about the ways in which the holidays will be different this year. Spend some quiet time reflecting on what your needs are and express those to your family. Encourage others to share their feelings as well so that you can navigate these challenges together.

Let go of expectations. In our culture, it’s almost an expectation that you throw yourself into the whirlwind of the holiday season; to be lighthearted and happy. After all, how could anyone be sad during the holidays? But things are different for someone who is grieving. Remember, it’s okay not to conform to society. If something doesn’t feel quite right this year, don’t do it. Simply do what you can and let that be enough.

Adapt your traditions. Sometimes sticking with familiar traditions may not feel quite right. Conversely, it may feel more important than ever to carry on your family’s traditions. Whichever path you choose, know that it is okay to adapt, change or even forego traditions for a time. You can always add them back in later.

Honor your grief. It’s okay to feel sad, even while others are celebrating. It’s important to take time to honor your grief. Cry if you need to or confide in someone you trust. Remember, it’s okay to feel good too! It’s natural to feel like you must feel sad because a loved one has died, but it’s simply not true. If something makes you smile or laugh, do it!

Take time to honor your loved one. Consider honoring the memory of your loved one in one of the following ways:

  • Give to a cause that was important to them
  • Make ornaments that represent them and give to family and friends
  • Set a place at the table for your loved one during holiday meals
  • Light a candle in their honor during each day of the holiday season
  • Send thank you notes to those who were special to them

Whether you’re facing the prospect of your last holiday season together or approaching your first season without a loved one, things may feel scattered, unsettled and broken right now. Take time to honor those feelings and work to manage the expectations you place on yourself this year. Be patient and kind, but also take heart in knowing that, in time, the scattered and broken pieces will be put together again in new, unexpected and wonderful ways.

If you or someone you love is dealing with grief this holiday season, know that help is always available. Support can include phone calls, newsletters, individual counseling and group settings. For a support group near you, please call 260-373-9800 for more information or questions.

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