Dealing With Grief During the Holidays

This is an excerpt from my book: Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One:

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The first year of grief after the loss of a spouse or a life mate is hard because our grief is so new and so raw that it’s all we can do to take one painful breath at a time. All the firsts we experience during this period can make things even harder.

The first holidays are painful. The first wedding anniversary, the first birthdays, the first major holidays. Each of these days brings a greater sense of grief because we are intensely aware that our life mate is not here to experience these once-happy holidays with us. Whatever traditions we developed together become obsolete when only one of us remains to carry on. The pain and the yearning to be together once more during these times can be devastating.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years are the big holidays with the biggest challenges. These special days are family celebrations, and often we are left alone with our memories and our feelings, even if we are surrounded by family.

After Jeff died, I went to take care of my ninety-three-year-old father. That first Thanksgiving, my brothers and sisters-in-law came to have dinner with us. I felt awkward because my widowed father sat at one end of the table, and I sat at the other end in my mother’s place, even performed her hostess duties. Despite that weirdness, it was a nice meal, but as the guests were leaving, two by two, I fell into a deep crevice of grief that took a couple of weeks to crawl out of.

Christmas is even more challenging because if we do opt to join the family in festivities, assuming we have such an option and want to make use of it, our families don’t know what to say to us. They are afraid of saying “Merry Christmas,” because they know there can be no merriment for us. Their fumbling to find something to say makes us so much more conscious of our situation than the rote greeting, “Merry Christmas,” would have done. After all, no one truly is wishing us, or anyone, merriment. It’s simply the thing we say.

We each have to find our own way to deal with the holidays. Talking to someone about our loved one, perhaps sharing a special memory can help, and if there is no one to talk to, writing a letter to our deceased mate can make the upsurge of grief around the holidays easier to handle. There is great power in writing to our dead because it gives us a sense of connection and continuity. We are verbal creatures, so putting our feelings into words can be therapeutic and can decrease the stress of the holidays.

Sometimes we grievers find comfort in doing things the way we always did because it makes us feel closer to our departed loved one. Sometimes we need to create new traditions for us alone, which is how I dealt with the days.

Jeff loved Christmas lights, and since he still lived in my heart, or so people said, I took him for a walk that first Christmas Eve and showed him the abundance of lavishly decorated houses in the neighborhood. As fanciful a notion as that was, it helped.

Over time, as we build new memories on top of the old ones, the emotional resonance of the holidays and anniversaries diminishes, as does the dread leading up to these days. The upsurges of grief we experience soften to a feeling of nostalgia and even gratitude that once we were loved, once had someone to love, once had someone with whom to share our life.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.