Holidays mean time spent with loved ones – a concept most of us grew up believing. Holiday traditions create an atmosphere of warmth and togetherness each year and provide a sense of comfort and belonging.
However, recreating that cozy holiday atmosphere becomes difficult when children are scattered across the country, an aging parent is living with dementia, loved ones have passed away, a spouse or partner is no longer present or grandparents can simply no longer muster the stamina for a day’s celebration.
Instead of the normal holiday preparations, those experiencing loss find themselves thinking:
“Who’s going to carve the turkey now that Grandpa has died?”
“I don’t have the energy to shop, decorate, or be around others this year.”
“I just want to skip Chanukah this year. I’ll feel too empty since my children moved away.”
Since holidays are about “time spent with loved ones,” they can be very difficult for people who have experienced loss or significant changes. Memories of good times and togetherness during the holidays become reminders of the loss and change. Watching others embrace the excitement of the holidays accentuates this pain. People may simultaneously experience guilt at the thought of engaging in traditional holiday activities like putting up the tree or giving gifts because they are celebrating without their loved ones.
Successfully coping with loss and change during the holidays requires acknowledging that things will never be as they were in the past. Accepting this reality frees you to experience the change and loss and all the accompanying emotions. Acknowledging change grants you permission to have moments that may feel awkward, difficult or emotionally painful. Acceptance allows you to prepare for holiday time by making specific plans and arranging for the support you need to successfully navigate the inevitable and needed changes.
Tips for coping with change, grief and loss during the holidays
1. Set realistic expectations for yourself. Don’t make the mistake of burying yourself in a whirlwind of holiday preparations to distract yourself from your feelings and avoid dealing with the changes and loss. Doing this is like attempting to hold a beach ball under water…it may work briefly, but eventually the ball will find a way to the surface and may not do this at times which are most effective. Instead of overwhelming yourself with holiday activities, determine what your priorities are and engage in activities which help maintain those priorities.
2. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Change and loss make people feel alone and even unloved. The feeling is accentuated when extensive amounts of time are spent alone or when you tell yourself you are imposing or burdening others. Spending time with those who love and support you helps you feel better and also provides opportunities to emotionally support others who may be experiencing the same loss or change that you are experiencing.
3. Avoid “canceling” the holiday despite the temptation. If the thought of holiday activities simply feels too painful, overwhelming or inappropriate this year, consider cutting back instead of eliminating the holiday. You might choose to minimally decorate the house, skip sending holiday greeting cards, or limit holiday party attendance.
4. Allow yourself to FEEL – Joy, anger, sadness, relief, loss… Don’t be afraid to express your feelings and be willing to allow others to be with you in your emotion. Give your emotions a time and a place to be expressed by engaging in activities specifically for that purpose.
5. Do for others. Sometimes the biggest comfort is giving to others. In times of loss or change, doing things that “make a difference” becomes increasingly important. Consider ways you want to contribute to the world around you and take action. When you reach out and help others, you may be as blessed as those you minister to.
6. Take care of yourself:
- Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate your mood.
- Get enough sleep, eat well and take time out for yourself.
- Share your memories with others.
- Engage in physical exercise to help manage feelings of depression and anxiety.
- Find ways to express your emotions appropriately every day.
7. Create new traditions or rituals that fit your current situation.
As a family, discuss the activities you want to include or exclude this year. New rituals and traditions might include:
- Doing something in memory of a loved one who has passed away
- Starting a new family tradition
- Creating a new menu for the holiday meal
- Inviting friends over
The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays. Each person’s path through the holidays will be unique. What IS vitally important is to be present and participate fully in your journey through this holiday season.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.