Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grief, Holidays, and Connection

Grief does not discriminate, and loss will, eventually, affect us all. And for many who have already suffered loss, the holidays mark a significant and painful reminder of that person’s absence during, what is culturally recognized as, a time of celebration. Often, those mourning the death of a loved one suffer in silence during the holiday, trying very hard to put on their “game face”. 

Yet, for some mourners, this forced inauthenticity may exacerbate their already fragile emotional state, making them feel disconnected from family, friends and other loved ones during the holidays.

So what do we do as mourners when others, all around us, are celebrating? In my nearly two decades of working with and researching the traumatically bereaved I found some things which may help connect us deeply with self, other, and the natural world during what can be a very overwhelming time of year:  

1. Sharing your feelings openly and honestly with others directly may help them to understand. Sometimes, the process of discussing the loved one who died before the gathering begins can relieve the tension others may feel wondering, “Should I talk about this or not?”

2.  Rituals are often very helpful, especially new ones. A few ideas, for example, include lighting a candle and having a moment of silence at the beginning of the holiday meal, asking family members to make a donation to a specific charity in his/her name, setting an empty place at the table for him/her and asking each person to tell their favorite memory, volunteering as a family in his/her memory, buying a gift for a child the same age and donating it, and a craft-making project where family and friends make an ornament in his/her memory. This not only gives others permission to share their feelings but also brings people together by enacting grief.

3.  Connection with a support group in your area can be very helpful.  Empirical research suggests that social support is one of the most important variables in helping grievers cope.  There are many grief groups that meet in person and online. Even social media can be used to help connect grievers to one another.

4.  Get out into nature if weather permits. Take a walk, hike, or just sit outside. If that’s not possible, then bring nature inside. Create an indoor window garden or a Zen sand garden.  When possible, expose yourself to natural sunlight at least a few minutes each day.

5.  Move your body. Exercise, even just walking, can help increase positive emotional states.

6.  Practice intentional solitude using contemplative prayer, silent time, or meditation. Take a few minutes every morning and evening to breathe slowly and deeply, eyes lightly closed. Focus on the stillness if you can. Keep this practice going.

7.  Change your routine. From the small things like changing the music you play when putting up the tree or the meal you eat to leaving town for a planned holiday vacation, novelty can help us cope at difficult times.

8.   If you are spending time with others during the holidays, tell them in advance of your fragility. Let them know that you may leave early (it’s nothing personal toward them), ask them if there is a quiet spot in the house where you can go to be alone if you need it, and tell them the ways in which you’d like them to discuss- or not to discuss- your feelings openly with others.

9.  Give others permission to talk about your precious loved one who died. Tell them what you need. Sometimes, fear gets in the way of others approaching the bereaved.  You can write a letter delineating what you would like. For example, “Dear friends, At this time of year, we are struggling without our daughter, Jane, in our home.  We know it is frightening but we’d like to ask you to talk about her with us and to ask how we are really doing.  We’d like you to remember her in your prayers, and then tell us when you do.  We’d like you to consider a donation to X charity in her name.  Please send us emails rather than calling us.  We find phone calls to be overwhelming right now. We’d appreciate help with meals during the week of Christmas. If you are able to leave a meal at the door, we’d appreciate it.  Our friend, Mary, will be coordinating that for us. Please contact her at XXX-XXXX.  Finally, we love to receive cards so please keep them coming. We love hearing your favorite memories of Jane. Thank you. We are grateful for your support, and will need it for many years to come.”

10.   Finally, give yourself permission to take care of you and your family first. It is okay to turn down invitations to events, to cut back on holiday celebrations and d├ęcor, and to ask for help with child family members who may also be grieving. Eat well, get enough rest when you can, and watch alcohol/drug consumption. Stress, naturally, distracts us from self-care, so you’ll need to be more vigilant during this time of year.

There is no question that, for many, grief and the sense of isolation and loneliness amplifies during holidays.  These 10 simple strategies may help us remain more self-aware, self-compassionate, and feeling more connected to those around us who love us, to our precious one who died, and to a deeper and wounded part of our self. Together, connected, we can get through these dark days.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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