Finding Holiday Comfort and Joy While Grieving

griefThe holidays can be a really joyful time for many, but if you’re grieving a loss, the holidays can take an emotional toll. Our expert suggests ways to navigate this challenging time, and even find joy in the face of loss. 

By Kristen Davis-Coelho, Ph.D., psychologist and director of Renown Behavioral Health

It happens every year. The holidays are upon us and the whirlwind of decorating, shopping and parties begins. But if you’re dealing with grief from loss of a loved one or divorce, you’ve likely been thinking about the holiday season long in advance, wondering how to celebrate in the absence of those special people.

The good news is, it’s still possible to find meaning and even experience joy during the holidays. You just might need to change things up a bit.

First, remember that you’re allowed to have all of your feelings — including sadness, anger or anxiety. Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean those feelings disappear. You don’t have to put on your game face and pretend they aren’t there. You’re also allowed to laugh and feel joy; if those moments come, embrace them.

Planning ahead can help mitigate some of the dread you may be feeling. Rather than fixate on the approaching holiday — which can intensify your grief — try to stay in the present and plan some activities that give you something to look forward to. As you begin to explore which activities to participate in and who to spend time with, focus on what will bring you the most comfort and meaning. It is okay to make decisions based on your own needs and the needs of your family during this time.

Traditions can be tricky. Think about which traditions still feel meaningful, or honor the person who’s no longer there. But don’t feel obligated to do certain activities just because “we’ve always done that.” You don’t have to mail out holiday cards. You don’t have to attend every family function or party. Maybe you participate in the activities your kids prefer and provide them comfort. Or opt out of everything and take a trip instead. If past traditions still feel meaningful, embrace and enjoy them, but recognize they’re going to feel a little different now.

Creating a new tradition or ritual is an excellent way to move forward while honoring your loved one. Set aside time with your loved ones to reminisce and share fun memories about that person. And if your children are grieving divorce and distraught over a holiday season without mom and dad together, talk to them about their feelings. Find out if there are old traditions they’d like to continue or if there is something new that would bring comfort.

Giving back to others is another way to honor your grief while also honoring a loved one or the family you had. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or children’s hospital. Perform random acts of kindness for friends, family or neighbors. Service is healing. This takes the focus off ourselves and offers a little reprieve from the intensity of our own emotions. We see that we’re not alone: Others are struggling during the holidays too. We walk away with greater compassion, kindness and empathy for other human beings.

And if you need help, ask for it. Your loved ones don’t want you to suffer silently through the holidays. Communicate with your family and friends — immediate and extended — about how you’re feeling and your needs during the holidays. Whether you want to skip the party, need some company at home, or help with shopping, just ask. You’ll feel better and it will allow your loved ones to receive the benefits of knowing they’ve helped support you.

Take note: No two people grieve alike. Your experience is yours. Get support, take care of yourself and those you love and remember that grief is a process. Joy is possible even in the face of loss.

This story was also published in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source on Nov. 27, 2016.

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