Thinking Out Loud: Healthy grieving during the holidays

John T. Catrett III
John T. Catrett III

With the holidays in full swing, it is a joyous time of year for most people.  But let's not forget those who are in the grieving process at the moment.  Let's stop and take some time to remember that this is probably the most difficult time of year for those who have lost a loved one.

There are some who believe that "closure" within days of a tragedy will help one to "get over it" faster and move on with their lives more quickly.  Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is sometimes grieving is a long, painful and messy process. It is usually marked with both progress and regression, making it seem like the process is going to keep dragging on and on.  Today we know that grieving is a very individual thing and there are things we can do to help ourselves or someone else who is grieving, especially at this time of year.

How can I help myself through this difficult time?

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes the littlest things can seem overwhelming. Don't try to do too much or try to get it ALL done. Do what you can and ask others for help when you need it. Most people would be more than happy to step in and help.

Give yourself permission to grieve.  Some people don't want to "spoil" the celebrations by their grieving process, so they may either put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay, or they avoid parties and celebrations altogether.  Grieving is a natural and necessary part of life and it's okay.  Let others know that you might not participate in all of the usual ways this year.  Feel free to change plans at the last minute.  Cry if and when you need to. Let others know it's OKAY to share their favorite memories of your loved one with you.

Build on a tradition.  If a big holiday meal was a tradition, it may seem awkward having an empty place setting at the table, so place a special candle on the table in remembrance of your loved one.  If decorating was a big tradition, buy or make a special ornament or decoration in honor of your loved one.

If a tradition is just too painful, change the way you celebrate. Putting up a full-blown tree with the trimmings may just be too hard, so why not decorate an outdoor tree and put some special food out for the birds.  If staying at home where the memories are the strongest, take a holiday trip, even if it's just for a day or so.

Do something for someone else.  Sometimes nothing helps get the focus off ourselves more than to focus on other people for a while.  Volunteer at a homeless shelter, help wrap and pass out presents for needy children, or just make a donation in memory and honor of your loved one.

Don't forget the reason for the season.  Some people just seem to miss the simplicity of the holidays.  Hope, love, peace, joy, faith, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and generosity are all hallmarks of what this season is about.  Focusing on why and whom we are celebrating at Christmas may help ease the discomfort.

So how can you help someone else this time of year?

• Let them talk about it.  The holidays are marked with family and friends gathering.  Avoiding the fact that someone is missing will not make things better.  While reminiscing, don't avoid all conversations that may involve the one who has passed away.  Ask about their loved one, even if you didn't know them very well.

• Some things are better left unsaid.  Comments like "You'll get over it", "It was God's will", or even "I know how you feel" probably won't make them feel any better, so just don't say them.

• Make time for them.  Let's face it, the holidays are a very busy time for most.  But obviously it can be a very lonely time for many. However painful and messy it gets, your willingness to just "be there" is a very generous gift in and of itself.

• Lend a hand.  Even the everyday stuff can be overwhelming, let alone the added pressure of the holidays.  Some people may have a hard time asking for help.  Offer to do something like run errands, wrap presents or other chores.

• Don't break promises.  People often feel abandoned the weeks and months after the funeral when everyone else seems to be returning to their regular lives.  Always follow through on promises to call or visit, or for a change of scenery, ask them over for a visit.

• Don't judge how someone grieves.  Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time.  Be gentle and compassionate.

• Be open to change. Holiday traditions are wonderful for the most part, but sometimes they may be just too painful.  Be open to creating new traditions or skipping some altogether for the time being.

• Healthy grieving does not have a timeline.  It can be a slow, difficult process that lasts for months or even years.  Allowing yourself or someone you know and love the time and space to grieve may be the greatest gift you give this year.

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John T. Catrett III is ONHL hospice chaplain and writes a regular column about loss of loved ones and how to cope with grief.