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Merry? Happy? Perhaps Not for Those Who Are Grieving

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As we move through the holiday season and head into the New Year, our society sends the message loud and clear: this is a time to rejoice, spread good cheer, and celebrate.

Holidays traditionally symbolize a time of families and friends gathering together. When you are grieving, however, the holidays can be emotionally challenging; filled with memories of holidays past and poignant reminders of who will be missing this year. The words "merry" and "happy" may reflect exactly how you are not feeling.

'Tis the Season
This year's holidays will be different for grievers without that special someone. No matter how long it has been since the death, holidays can be a powerful trigger for grief. Mixed with the nostalgia of comforting memories may come an increased sense of longing, sadness and emptiness.

Frequently overheard
Grievers describe a myriad of feelings and concerns about how to spend the holidays:

"When I'm home, I feel like going out, and as soon as I go out, I feel like going back home."

"If they talk about her, it makes me sad. Yet if they don't talk about her it makes me angry."

"Should I mention his name myself?"

"What if I find myself having fun?"

Deciding what to do
Eva has turned down all invitations this year, believing that her sadness would be an unwelcome guest at a party. Without her partner at her side she's not sure who she would talk to. She fears that people would either avoid her, or she'd overhear them talking about her. "I'm not up to making light-hearted conversation, but what would they think if I broke into tears right in the middle of the festivities?"

Martin would like to hide under the covers until January 2. When someone recently asked him, "What would I like to find under the Christmas tree this year?" the only response Martin could think of was: "A message telling me that this has all been a bad dream."

Gwen has decided to make her friends aware in advance of her fluctuating preferences. She has written to them: "My life is so different this year. I don't expect you to understand completely, nor would I want you to. I so appreciate your invitations and I hope it is OK if I decide at the very last minute. It is almost impossible to know in advance how I am going to feel. So please forgive me if I arrive late, leave early, don't show up at all, or oscillate between feeling blue and having a good time. You are so dear to me and your understanding means everything."

Laurel has decided "I'm giving myself permission to have fun and participate in holiday celebrations." She recognizes that having a good time does not mean that she is being disloyal to her mom who died last year. "It just means that I have room to do both. I know I'll be missing her even while I'm enjoying myself."

Holiday tips
You may or may not want to "do it all this year". And you have the right to decide. As you keep, change or let go of traditions, or create new ones, here are some suggestions which might maximize the possibility that you will enjoy a positive, warm, and comforting holiday season:

  • Maintain traditions that feel comforting and let go of those that no longer feel right
  • Create new traditions or meaningful rituals
  • Remember that it is okay to laugh, cry, sing or dance whenever you feel like it
  • Make a toast in memory of your loved one
  • Do some volunteer work that would be meaningful to the person you care about, or make a donation in their memory
  • Prepare special foods or bring their favorite dish to a holiday party
  • Share memories about your loved one with family members and friends
  • Remember that in families with children, the children are grieving, too. Here is a link to the Our House Grief Support Center website, for more ideas to support grieving children
  • Allow yourself time alone as well as planning time to be with others

Supporting someone who is grieving
If you know someone who is grieving this holiday season, you may be wondering how to talk to them, what to expect, or what might be helpful. Here are some ideas that grievers might appreciate.

  • Remember that people react in different ways. They may want the closeness of friends at times and need space at other times. Invite the person to social events and let them know that you will understand if they change their mind at the last minute.
  • Start the conversation. Use the name of the person who has died and share a special memory of them
  • Make an "in memory" donation
  • Know that it helps just to offer a listening ear. You aren't expected to say any magic words that will make them feel "all better." Offer to sit with or just "be" with the person who is grieving while they write letters, wrap presents, or address holiday cards.

As the holiday season unfolds, may the days bring comfort, strength, peace, and hope.

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.

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