Coping with Loss and Change during the Holidays

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It’s practically impossible to separate family and togetherness for the holidays. However, when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one or has undergone a significant life change, they may feel a certain undeniable void.

As we move into the festive time of year, our thoughts turn toward laughter, joy and fun. For some people, however, this time of year can signal an onslaught of sadness, tears and depression. Surviving the holidays can seem nearly impossible. Those struggling with loss or grief over the holidays may simply go through the motions of the season without giving it too much thought.

If the grief is fresh, all of that holiday cheer can seem like an assault on the emotions. Even when gathered with family and friends, the individual coping with grief and loss may feel particularly alone. Certainly, grief is a universal experience and all of us will have to deal with it at one point or another in our lives. We just have to remind ourselves that it is neither an orderly nor tidy process. There is no single right way to grieve; everyone goes through the process differently. A roller coaster of emotions can seem like a tidal wave crashing down at times, leading to crying, somber moods, sleep disturbances and loss of appetite, all of which are not in harmony with the joys of the season.

When you have lost someone who was an integral part of the family dynamics, you may find yourself asking, “Who’s going to carve the turkey now that Dad is gone?” If your children have moved away and cannot join you during the holidays this year, you may find yourself wanting to disregard the celebrations all together; watching others embrace the excitement of the holidays may only serve to deepen your sadness.

However, there are a few strategies to employ that can help to assuage those feelings and give you hope throughout the festivities. Consider starting a new tradition, something that will not remind you of the past, one that will allow you to focus on the future. If it helps, place a lighted candle on the dinner table or leave an empty chair in remembrance of your deceased loved one. You might even want to say a few words of remembrance.

To successfully cope with loss and change over the holidays, start by setting realistic expectations for yourself. If you don’t feel like doing the usual heavy lifting during the holidays, such as shopping, decorating, baking, cooking and entertaining, figure out what is most important to you and focus on that alone. Don’t overwhelm yourself with a to-do list when your emotions alone are overwhelming.

Be sure to surround yourself with those who love and support you. Change and loss in life make us feel alone, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Do not shy away from social gatherings too much, as the more time you spend alone, the more you will accentuate your feelings of loneliness. You may even find a common connection with someone who is struggling with loss and change as well, giving you the opportunity to emotionally support that person.

Remember to take care of yourself. Avoid the use of alcohol to self-medicate your mood. Be sure to sleep enough and eat a healthy, balanced diet. Physical exercise is a great way to relieve stress, depression and anxiety.

If sticking to traditions seems paralyzing, change how you celebrate the holidays this year. Instead of planning a huge meal at home, go out to eat. If staying close to home is too heartbreaking, schedule a short getaway with friends.

Remember, however, not to keep your feelings and your needs to yourself. Allow yourself to express what you are feeling and to discuss what you need in terms of help. Don’t feel guilty, either, if you simply are not up to engaging in the usual celebrations in the name of tradition.

While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best ways to help yourself transition through this difficult period is to help someone else. Volunteer your time to a charitable or religious organization. Make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the one who passed. More than anything, be sure to give yourself the gift of time. Grief and loss pave a single road we all travel alone at our own pace. Be assured, though, that over time, it tends to soften and change. The memories will never leave you, but the holidays should be easier to handle over the ensuing years.

Most importantly, remind yourself there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays. Do what makes you feel good and comfortable. This is your journey and you owe it to yourself to celebrate in a way that speaks to your heart. ■

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