The holidays are a time when many families come together and celebrate. After the passing of a loved one, these special days might not look the same.
From as early as August through December our senses are filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the many celebrations that will take place. Whether you love the season or have never enjoyed it, emotions can run high. This is especially true for those who are grieving.
Dwight Douglass, LCSW, psychosocial team leader for Suncoast Hospice, has years of experience in guiding clients through their grief. He offers them a “Holiday Bill of Rights” and a “Holiday Checklist” which offer these strategies for honoring the holiday season, even if you don’t feel celebratory:
Make a plan for the day.
The first special day without a loved one often brings fear and thoughts of worst case scenarios. Like waiting in line for a rollercoaster, the anticipation can heighten feelings of anxiety.
“I like to tell folks to control the day so it doesn’t control you,” explains Douglass. “When negative thinking is trying to come in the door, you end up putting all your energy into keeping those thoughts out. It’s better to be proactive and have a plan.”
When creating a plan for the day, think about the things you can do alone and the times when you feel like you want to be around people. It’s okay if you want to be alone the entire time, part of the time, or not at all.
To navigate invitations to gatherings, consider going for part of the time. Joining in for appetizers or dessert allows you the freedom to spend as little or as much time as you would like around others.
If you are going somewhere that might trigger a breakdown or emotional episode, such as a religious service, holiday recital or other event, make sure you have an escape plan. Driving yourself to the location and sitting in the back on an aisle are good ideas for a quick exit.
It’s important to remember that grief is unpredictable and your feelings might change when the day actually arrives. You have a right to make changes when you need to.
Bring your loved one to the table.
Our loved ones live on through traditions. Whether it’s a special dish at Thanksgiving dinner or a routine for decorating the house, these acts keep the memory of those we have lost close to us. Keeping traditions alive isn’t living in the past, it is making new memories while remembering old ones.
“I try to encourage people to think about the one tradition their loved one enjoyed the most and then think about what you like most,” says Douglass. “Find a way to honor these traditions, even if it is modified.”
He goes on to share the story of a group of ladies from a bereavement group. That year the women weren’t feeling like putting up or taking down a tree, but it was still a tradition they wanted to honor. As an alternative, they took a tour of Christmas trees in the area, such as those at the Vinoy and Don CeSar hotels. They were still able to enjoy the sights and feelings that come with seeing a decorated tree but it was on their own terms.
Communicate with your family.
Every member of the family will be coping with the loss of a loved one in their own way and will be in different stages of the grief process. Each person will have their own view of how things should be. Open and honest communication with your family will help ensure each person finds a piece of the holiday that is important to them.
For example, if carving the Thanksgiving turkey is a point of conflict, do you have a turkey sandwich picnic in the park instead of a big dinner or will you opt for an entrée other than turkey?
Going through Christmas ornament boxes can also be an emotional event. If the ornament box is too full of memories but other family members still want a tree, can you settle on a set of ornaments from the store that don’t have the emotional attachment?
However plans may shift this year, remember that the next year will bring an opportunity to discuss what worked, what didn’t and when things might look more normal again.
Communicating with your family includes kids, too. Adults may be afraid or unsure of how to approach the subject with children, but just like with the adult members of your family, being honest is always a good idea.
“Kids are so resilient and are usually a lot more okay than we are,” adds Douglass. “They want to be helpful and make you feel better.”
Ask kids to draw a picture, write a card or come up with their own way to honor your loved one. Their ability to creatively problem solve might surprise you.
Feel all of the feelings.
You’re entitled to having days where you feel a bit Grinch-y. You also have the right to do something just for fun. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief.
The holiday season can be overwhelming with decorations and music playing in many places and special programming and commercials on television. Control your exposure to these things when you can, step away when you have to, but above all else allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come forward.
“When we bottle up our feelings, it can start to affect other areas of our life,” says Douglass. “Allowing ourselves to feel and turning those emotions into something productive is more beneficial in the long run.”
For more information about grief support services call us at (727) 467-7423 or visit SuncoastHospice.org/grief-support.