When the holidays aren’t so merry: coping with grief

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The holidays are a jolly time for many, but it can be a particularly difficult time for people who are grieving the death of loved ones.

“Grief is a normal response to a significant loss,” says Jane Weiland, program coordinator at Hospice Huntsville. “When you add in the Christmas season, we feel that everything needs to be perfect and wonderful and yet when you’re grieving, it’s not perfect and wonderful.”

She adds that it’s helpful—and important—for anyone who is bereaved to consider how much you want to do this time of year and contrast that with how much you feel you can do. Remember that your needs are important and it’s also important to acknowledge your own limitations. Maybe you feel you don’t have enough energy to do all the things you would usually do, or to face all of the traditions. Do you want to celebrate Christmas the same way you always have or do you want to make it somewhat different? For example, putting the decorations on the tree brings back special memories and those can be challenging, says Weiland.

“One of the things to think about is not denying or not doing something that’s important to you just because you think it would be difficult,” she says. “If it’s important to you, try to do it; if you need to take a break because it’s too much then that’s okay to take a break.”

But not forever. “One of the things about doing grief work is that it’s important to work through facing some of the things that are a little bit difficult. So if you can’t do something this year, you might do it another time. But still, if it’s really important to you, don’t think, ‘I’ll never do it again.'”

It’s okay to reach out to those you trust for support and say, ‘I want to do this, but I need some help,’ adds Weiland. “Isolation is not the best coping strategy. It’s okay to take a break and give yourself permission to be quiet or alone, but being fully alone isn’t always the best coping strategy. Just knowing that there isn’t any real right answer. It’s what’s right for you. It’s taking care of yourself and not putting too much expectation on yourself, but also planning around how you can spend your energy and thinking about what would be a joy for you and knowing it won’t be easy.”

People who are grieving sometimes experience what Weiland calls grief attacks, which can be made worse in the hustle and bustle of season.

“It’s when you think that you’re doing just fine. Today’s a good day, and you’re able to get up and maybe do some errands, and then suddenly you hear a song or you smell some aftershave and you end up crying in the grocery store,” says Weiland. “And people feel, of course, very uncomfortable with that. People often say, ‘I think I’m going crazy,’ but really it is a natural way of letting those emotions out.”

Grief affects everyone differently. You could feel shocked or numb or angry or guilty or sad. It also has physical effects like fatigue or changing patterns of sleep and eating, as well as affecting concentration, how social you are or your spiritual beliefs. “Oftentimes people talk about how grief affects or shakes their beliefs or their values and even their faith if that’s a piece of their life,” says Weiland.

Grief is an unpredictable thing. For each person, how you grieve is different and we in society think that it’s something to get over when really it’s a process to work through.

It’s also important to remember that children don’t grieve like adults do. “They are living their emotions,” says Weiland. “You might see some new kinds of behaviors…they might be quiet and withdrawn, or they might be suddenly high energy or they might start acting a little bit like a younger version of themselves. Those can be all signs of how the grief is processing for them,” says Weiland. “What they really need to know is that everything will be alright and that they’re going to be looked after and supported.”

That support could include encouraging them to express their feelings at their own pace and helping them express their emotions through a few outlets. Talking is one method—they may have questions or worries—and so is using music or movement or art. Include them in conversations and decisions about plans for memorial celebrations, holidays or other traditions. And remember that kids need breaks—time to do kid stuff like being outside or spending time with friends.

It’s also important to be careful with the language you use around death, says Weiland. “Words like the person’s ‘gone to sleep’ or they’ve ‘gone to a better place’ can be confusing. It can create fears about sleep or questions like ‘why wasn’t it good enough here with me?'”

If you are supporting someone who is grieving—child or adult—know that it’s okay to talk about the person who has died and to share your memories of them. Ask how you can support someone who is bereaved and respect the answer, says Weiland. “We all have an idea of what works, but that can put too much pressure on someone and possibly even be frustrating, so it’s not supportive.”

Hospice Huntsville has both one-to-one and group grief and bereavement support available for both adults and children. For more information, contact Jane Weiland, program coordinator at (705) 789-6878 ext. 200 or [email protected] You can also find other resources on the Hospice Huntsville website here.

All of Hospice’s grief support are free of charge to all community members, as are all of the organization’s other programs, and it relies on donations to keep them that way. Hospice must raise 60 per cent of its operating budget every year through various giving opportunities like annual fundraisers, its wish list and its 500 Club. Those who wish to contribute directly to grief and bereavement support can purchase books for Hospice’s resource library via its Wish List or make a general donation.

Hospice Huntsville is also conducting a survey to help the organization better understand the needs of the community. Your comments would be appreciated here.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you Dawn for a very insightful article. It has been two years since I lost my husband. Sometimes it seems like yesterday sometimes it seems like a hundred years. It is so good to know that other people experience the same feelings at different times. In church – hearing a hymn or a prayer – and you referred to seeing an article in a store and out come the tears. It is a difficult time as my guy died just a few days before Christmas. But thankfully I have a wonderful family and they are all very supportive, thanks again for the advice I wish everyone a very Happy New Year.

  2. This will be the 4th Christmas since the death of my husband, my sons’ dad, my grandchildren’s grandad, and my daughters-in-laws’ special guy! We hang his stocking and write memories about him. We light a candle that was bought for him by one of our grandsons that has “Best Grandad” on it. We talk and talk and talk about him. We keep his memory alive!! Memories are what we have aplenty! Memories and photos!!! It’s very comforting to all of us. And…we all pitch in to make the special meal when we celebrate together! There are some devastatingly sad moments as well as lots of moments of hilarious laughter!! We grieve and mourn together, and that’s just a beautiful thing!
    This is a beautifully written article by Dawn Huddlestone, with many lovely ideas and reassurances by Jane Weiland at Hospice Huntsville. I have taken the grief support course there, and it is beyond helpful! I totally recommend it!

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