Coping with Grief During the Holiday Season
While loss is difficult during any time, this holiday season is especially difficult given other losses people are experiencing due to the pandemic like the loss of a job, change in residence, changes in close relationships or negative changes in one’s financial status. Additional challenges presented by societal unrest and the state of the economy also have the potential for making coping difficult.
“Any change involving loss includes a grieving process,” said Michelle Lucchesi, M.A., L.L.P., therapist, MidMichigan Medical Center – Gratiot, Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program. “There is a process of grief through which one progresses, though it has many variations. If the grief process is acknowledged and prepared for, healthy grieving can take place even during the holiday season.”
Usually the grief process begins with a period of shock. This is especially true when the loss is sudden and unexpected. During this stage a person may experience denial, outbursts or numbness. It is one’s minds saying ‘I can’t believe this happened.’
Once the reality of the loss is recognized, a protest stage follows. During this stage one may experience strong emotions of anger or guilt but also physical symptoms like nausea, loss of appetite, weakness or exhaustion. Social symptoms like withdrawal can also occur. During this stage, one’s mind and body says ‘I don’t like that this happened!’ To get through this stage in a healthy way, memories and pain must be allowed to be experienced and acknowledged which can be very difficult. Many people resist this stage.
After the protest stage, one advances to disorganization then reorganization when learning how to live with and adapt to the change occurs. Common during these stages are confusion, depression, restlessness and apathy before eventually beginning to explore new patterns of behavior, new interests and new skills.
The last, welcomed stage is recovery when one becomes able to reconnect with those around them and invest energy into relationships and activities again. At this stage, planning for the future returns.
“Whatever stage of grief one is experiencing, there is often additional anxiety over how to cope with or “get through” the holidays,” adds Lucchesi. “This may be especially true if family has decided to forego a large gathering for safety reasons. Being alone for the holidays may feel like a relief for some grieving people, but presents certain risks as far as becoming stuck in one of the stages of the grieving process.”
Here are some ideas for coping with grief during the holidays:
- Phone a friend or plan safe, individual visits. It’s always safe to use the phone and with proper precautions, individual visits are less risky. When feeling lonely and missing the loved one lost, one should pick up the phone and call a close friend or family to talk through their feelings. Perhaps even make a point of calling those one may have seen at the larger holiday gatherings in years past.
- Get out of the house. Even if it takes extra effort, get out of the house for safe activities such as taking a drive or walk. Be sure to follow social distancing recommendation and get the fresh air and exercise that helps reduce feelings of isolation.
- Tell the story. It’s helpful to reminisce about the person who is no longer present. Share a video or phone call and tell about a favorite memory or experience shared. This can also be done by journaling or writing a letter.
- See a need - meet a need. Honor the person by making a donation to a special cause or agency in their name. Perform special acts of kindness or send notes or letters to friends who may be in need of encouragement, dedicating the acts to the loved one’s memory. When safe to do so, volunteer.
- Cry. Giving oneself permission to cry, to physically grieve the loss of the loved one helps continue moving the grieving process along and assists in avoiding bottling up feelings. It also permits others an opportunity to share in the grieving process.
- Make the most of the moment. Stay focused on the “here and now.” It is okay to smile while living in a moment and showing enjoyment in the occasion.
- Laugh as much as possible. Just as permission to cry is appropriate during grief, so is permission to laugh. Even if forced, laughing has physical benefits such as aerobic workout for the diaphragm, increased oxygen intake, belly muscle relaxation, reduction of stress hormones, blood pressure and pain through the release of endorphins.
- Acknowledge the loss. Do something special for remembrance. There may be a special candle, a personalized tree ornament, setting a place at the table or putting photos in special places throughout the home.
- Strike a balance. Grief is a balance between being in the past and being in the present. Allow time for both, to remember and then to move forward into a new chapter of life.
- Say no. If feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of buying gifts, mailing cards and family obligations, it is acceptable to say “no thank you”, especially when concerned about safety issues. When limits are being tested by holiday stress, take a step back and reprioritize.
- Seek professional help. Having a neutral person who is not emotionally involved to talk to, such as a counselor or therapist, can be very beneficial. A professional will provide various coping strategies to help get through the holiday season and beyond. This may be in the form of outpatient counseling or, for more serious needs, intensive day programs.
The PHP program accepts voluntary self-referrals, community or physician referral. Those interested in referral information or details on insurance coverage may call the Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization program at (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MidMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit www.midmichigan.org/mentalhealth.
Adapted by Michelle Lucchesi, M.A., L.L.P. from an article by Elizabeth Christiansen, L.M.S.W.