The tree is up! The dust topped boxes are brought in from the shelf in the garage. It’s been a year since they were last opened. The lid is lifted, and the shimmering ornaments spill joy into the room. The holidays have arrived!
But what if that joy meets a grieving heart?
It happens every year. At a time when most people are filled with the holiday spirit, there will always be some people who are missing a deceased loved one, going through their days in a foggy haze with heaviness in their heart.
What’s it like for grieving people during the season of joy?
Some describe it as the most lonely time of year. The irony is they are rarely alone. Office parties. Family gatherings. Celebrations with friends and neighbors. The entire month of December is filled with parties. Just think of it – rooms filled with music, laughter and lights. Glasses are raised as joyful toasts are made. Tables are filled with holiday treats. These are parties where they feel they are the only one who is not celebrating. Their hearts are heavy, appetites are often gone, and their minds filled with thoughts of the deceased. Grievers find themselves wishing they could just be alone because they already feel so alone.
Others say that the season brings a lot of guilt and conflict. Celebrating the season can seem disrespectful to the memory of their loved one. Not celebrating would disappoint their living family and friends. For most of us the New Year marks a day of new beginnings; for someone who’s grieving it can mark the beginning a long year ahead. A year without the person they are missing. But the new year can’t be canceled, it’s going to happen. And when friends and family are asking to celebrate with them it’s hard to say no. So what is there to do? Go out for a night of celebration and celebrate a year without their loved one? Or, stay in alone and let down their friends?
Permission. Permission to feel sad, lonely, angry, or just plain bad. Permission to do things differently than in years past. Permission to not celebrate. Knowing that these are valid options can take the pressure off. For some people, it can even help them to find moments of joy in the holidays. If a griever can give themselves permission to do whatever they need (within safe and healthy limits, of course) to make the holidays a bit more gentle then they may be able to move into a position of control in the midst of a situation where they have no control.
Planning. Thinking ahead to what the holidays might bring up is so helpful. A thoughtful plan can take into consideration what traditions to continue, which traditions they might like to forgo, and what invitations to accept. An exit plan for parties is also a great thing to have. It can be very comforting to know how they will get home if a party becomes too uncomfortable, the grief too overwhelming, or they simply become too exhausted to stay.
Creating a plan can also create an opportunity to intentionally remember and acknowledge the deceased. Some people choose to set a place at the table for their loved one. Others write letters or visit the grave site.
Sometimes the plan is to do something entirely new – to go somewhere that their loved one has never been, a place that isn’t filled with memories.
Just like with permission, having a plan can help people regain their sense of control.
Pampering. I think most of us would say the holidays are exhausting even when they’re great. For someone who’s grieving, they are already tired to begin with. A conscious effort toward pampering is just good self-care. Sure a day at the spa would be great, but that’s not always realistic. Pampering can be simple – a cup of tea, a nap, a walk. For me, pampering is taking the time to make hot chocolate from scratch and drinking it alone. Sometimes pampering is asking for help to free up some time. Think of pampering as anything that helps someone rejuvenate.
How can we help someone who is grieving during the holidays?
Learn about grief. Great news, you’re already taking a step toward helping someone!
Ask if they’ve been thinking about their loved one more now that the holidays have arrived. It’s okay to bring it up first. Many people won’t bring it up on their own. There are lots of reasons for this. Some of the most common ones are: they don’t want to burden others with their grief, they think they should be “over it” by now, or they believe you think they should be over it. Even if it’s been years since the death, it’s common and normal for grief to resurface during the holidays.
Talk about ways to remember the deceased during the holidays. Every person grieves differently so each person has different remembrance needs. For one person it may be as simple as setting aside time to look at old photos from past holidays. For another person, they may need to spends days creating a memorial scrapbook filled with pictures and stories. It may be setting a place at the table. Or, it may be that they don’t want any open acknowledgment of the deceased. You can help a grieving person consider some options that might fit their needs.
Encourage them to take time out for themselves. Asking a grieving person what they’re doing to take care of themselves will often get a blank stare. It can be an entirely new idea. Help them think of ways they can comfort themselves and encourage them to schedule time for it.
With permission, planning, and pampering, the holidays can be a little more gentle on a heavy heart. And, there might even be room for a bit of joy.