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Tips for Surviving Grief & the Holidays

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other seasonal holidays are stressful for nearly everyone. But they can be particularly difficult if you’re grieving the death of a loved one. 

The pain, sadness and loneliness that often follow the loss of a friend, family member or animal companion can feel unbearable when everyone around you is celebrating. This is especially true if it’s the first holiday without the loved one. 

 “Grieving in general is a struggle,” says Marilyn Chapla, associate director of the nonprofit Good Grief Center for Bereavement Support (GGC). “But during the holidays, when our emotions are already on high alert, trying to figure out what to do can be very confusing, especially if you are trying to keep everything as it was before the person died. Traditional tasks such as cooking, tree decorating, gift-buying and entertaining can add to the intensity of one’s grief, too.” 

Grief is a normal human reaction to the loss of someone important in our lives, Chapla explains. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Every person grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Grief can affect people physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. 

The Good Grief Center, located at 2717 Murray Avenue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, assists individuals and families in Western Pennsylvania and beyond as they work through the grieving process. Services are offered free of charge and include compassionate listening, grief education, referrals to community resources, and access to a lending library of grief-related materials. Clients can receive emotional support from staff and trained volunteers in person, or over the phone at 412-224-4700.  

“Calls do increase over the holidays and we welcome that. We’re here to offer support, plus we know that the holidays offer unique challenges. Talking about those challenges with a neutral party can usually help the person work through what to do or not do. We remind people that no one has to grieve alone,” Chapla says. 

The Good Grief Center offers these tips for surviving the holidays while grieving: 

  • Be mindful of the energy that grieving and the holidays take. Both are hard work and exhausting. You can take care of yourself by spending your energy wisely, getting enough rest, and being careful not to overbook yourself with activities.  
  • If certain family traditions—such as carving the turkey or leading the family in song—make you uncomfortable this year, don’t do them. You can always pick them up later. 
  • When you are grieving, your memory may not be up to par, or you may be having trouble concentrating. That’s normal. For holiday tasks such as cooking, shopping, cleaning and organizing, make lists and rely on them.  
  • To avoid the stress of shopping, buy gift cards for everyone this year, or shop from catalogs or Internet sites. If mail order gifts cost more than you would normally spend, consider the difference a gift to yourself to preserve peace of mind. 
  • If your loss was an animal companion, ignore potential comments such as, “Get over it already! Enjoy yourself?it was just an animal.” Some people have never experienced a close bond with a pet and are unable to understand what you’re going through. Thank the person for their concern, and continue to grieve in your own way.  Seek out family members or friends who understand the pain of your loss. 
  • Pay attention to yourself. Listen when that little voice tells you that you’re tired and need to take a break from holiday preparation. 
  • If you are feeling pressured to participate in more than you’re comfortable with, try saying “No thank you.” You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Be kind, but firm. Do what feels right to you. 
  • If you are up for taking part in festivities, enjoy them in moderation and to your comfort level. Let the host know ahead of time that it’s hard for you to be around cheerful people right now, that you may need to leave early or cry unexpectedly. 
  • If you are grieving too deeply and celebrating is not an option, remember the 3Cs: choice, communication and compromise. Give yourself permission to choose what specific things you want to do, and who you want to be with. Communicate your thoughts and feelings about those choices with loved ones, especially those also affected by the loss. Finally, be open to compromising with family and friends on all issues.  
  • Instead of trying to push back memories of the person you are grieving this holiday, ask friends and family members to share recollections with you in photographs, stories and mementos. 
  • Find ways to include the loved one in your celebrations. Some examples:
    • Nightly, light a holiday-scented memorial candle near a framed photo or photo collage. The symbol of light in darkness reminds us that there is hope.
    • Put a place setting at the dinner table where the loved one always sat. Putting a single flower on the plate and leaving an empty glass will signify presence of spirit.
    • Make a special ornament or decoration that includes a memento or photo of your loved one. If children are grieving too, have them create artwork to display.
    • When alone in a safe place, relax with holiday tea or other favorite beverage, and talk out loud to your loved one, expressing your innermost thoughts and feelings. When finished, offer a prayer or a toast.  
  • Above all, trust that you will make it through the holidays this year. Even with the differences, you will find the experience bittersweet. Trust that while the season will be tinged with many emotions, you will be able to celebrate more fully in the future.  

There also are ways to help someone else who is grieving. Holidays are about love, and there’s no better way to show your love at this time than to just be there for the friend or family member on their terms; let them grieve in their own way and on their own time. 

You can help by encouraging them to talk about their grief and share memories of the loved one who died. Also, refer to their loved one by name; it’s comforting to the grieving individual to hear. Listen to their story. Hold their hand. Sit with them as they cry. Offer help with holiday chores or daily activities. Respect their decision to not attend celebrations, and their need to be alone. Be supportive, and encourage them to find support outside of their social circle.

For more tips or grief-related information, contact GGC at support@goodgriefcenter.com; or 412-224-4700 or 1-888-GRIEF-88; or visit www.goodgriefcenter.com.

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