The signs of the holiday season are ubiquitous: holiday decorations in the stores, piped in Christmas carols, holiday displays at the malls, TV programs focusing on selecting the perfect gift, holiday parties and gift exchanges at work. In many cases, this bustle of activity contrasts markedly with the emptiness and despair of grief. As one grieving person expressed it, “I wanted to crawl into a hole and come out after the holidays had passed.” Drawing primarily from my conversations with the bereaved, I describe commonly experienced difficulties and ideas that may be useful in dealing with them.
Dilemmas Associated with the Holiday Season
- The Requirement of Cheerfulness. There is an expectation during the holidays that people should be cheerful. One mourner explained that she hated going to holiday gatherings. “I could not be cheerful and I did not want to bring other people down by being sad. Going to such gatherings is like having to eat liver and pretending you like it, ” she said.
- The Mine Field of Social Exchanges. On many occasions, the innocent remarks of others may put a knife through the mourner’s heart. Shortly after the death of their son, the parents attended a holiday dinner hosted by the boy’s grandparents. The host began the meal with a blessing, “Thank you for bringing the whole family together.” The father was so distressed by this remark that he left the table. “Then I felt even worse,” he said, “because I had disrupted the gathering for everyone else.” Mourners can be thrown off guard by the remarks of complete strangers—for example, being admonished by a store clerk, “I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday.” As one bereaved husband indicated, “ You think of many responses, but you keep them to yourself.”
- The Complexity of Decisions. Bereaved individuals must navigate a difficult path in deciding how to handle decisions about family activities and rituals. As one mourner indicated, “I was not sure whether I should hang my son’s stocking or not. I decided to hang it, because after all he is my son. But my husband thought that this was not a good idea. He told me that I was ‘in denial.’”
- The Ambush. During the holidays, mourners are often hit by powerful feelings that are evoked by some reminder of the loss. Consequently, they experience what Noel and Blair (2000) have called “the ambush.” As one mother explained, “I was taking out the Christmas ornaments and I came across an ornament that Timmy had made in kindergarten last year. It had his hand print on it. I dissolved into tears.” These events, which are unexpected and unpredictable, are also called “blindside reminders,” “zingers,” and “grief attacks.” Although natural and normal, such experiences are often frightening in their intensity. They literally can take the mourner’s breath away and bring about heart palpitations and other symptoms.
Mourner’s Suggestions for Things to Try
- Plan Ahead. Don’t allow the holidays to just happen. Also, try to use a Plan A/Plan B approach to the holidays. Plan A might involve spending Christmas or Hanukkah with relatives; Plan B might mean having a simple dinner and watching a movie at home. Having a Plan B can be comforting even if you don’t use it.
- Arrange a Family Meeting or a conference call to discuss how you would like to spend the holiday season. Let everyone in your family have a say, even the children.
- Consider Changing Your Routine. If you always prepared the family meal, you may want to consider having dinner with relatives or friends. Or you may want to leave town altogether, heading for a cabin in the woods or an excursion to the mountains or the shore.
- Take Charge of Your Social Life. Although you may not feel like getting together with anyone, consider accepting a few invitations to be with close family or friends. Choose to be around people who make you feel comfortable and safe. Avoid social events that seem more like obligation.
- Scale Back. Because grief robs us of our emotional and physical energy, consider cutting back on such holiday tasks as sending cards, baking, decorating, or putting up a tree. Some of these activities may be painful to execute in light of the loss. One woman who lost a child stated that, “It broke my heart to write three names on the holiday cards instead of four, so I stopped sending cards.” Let others know that you may not be able to do things that you have done in the past.
- Be Gentle With Yourself. Accept that feelings of anguish are difficult to avoid during the holiday season. Do not expect too much of yourself, and recognize that you are doing the best you can.
- Have an Exit Strategy. In many cases, it is difficult for mourners to be around a lot of people. If they do go to a social gathering, they may not want to stay very long. This problem can be dealt with by developing an exit strategy in advance. For example, a widower may tell the hostess that, “I may need to leave early because I get tired easily.”
- Honor Your Loved One’s Memory. Some people have maintained that coming up with ways to do this can bring a positive focus to our grief. There are many ways to remember the person who died: share your favorite stories about him; light a candle in remembrance; make a donation in her name. You might also consider making a list of positive qualities that your loved one brought into the world. Another idea is to spend time working on a goal or value that was important to the deceased. If your father was very involved in conservation efforts, for example, you might volunteer your time to a group working towards conservation, or consider making a donation to this cause.
- Find People Who Will Provide Support. When people are already experiencing the great stress of grief, the additional strains of the holiday season can create distress that is almost unbearable. Thus it is important to identify those relatives and friends whom you feel are good listeners, and share your feelings with them. It may also help to recruit support for specific tasks that are particularly difficult. For example, a bereaved father found it heart-wrenching to go Christmas shopping alone because it upset him to encounter presents his daughter would have enjoyed. He asked a neighbor to accompany him to the mall so that he could purchase presents for his surviving children. “John helped me to focus so that I could get the job done,” he said.
- Consider Attending a Support Group. At this time of year, it can be particularly useful to interact with people who have experienced a loss that is similar to yours. Such individuals are likely to understand exactly what you are going through. In many cases, members will also be able to share strategies for dealing with the challenges of the holidays. As Rosof (1994) has indicated, those who have experienced a similar loss can also help us to understand that our feelings and fears are normal under the circumstances.
Because of the difficulties inherent at this time of year, it is easy for mourners to feel that they are making little headway in dealing with their loss. Noel and Blair (2000) have suggested that mourners may be moving forward even when they are unaware of it. According to these authors, “Wherever you are in the grief process… We know it’s hard—and we also know it gets less hard. The next time a special occasion, anniversary or holiday comes around you will feel a little more in control, a little less pained, the situation will be a little less difficult and you will begin to celebrate life again—one day” (p. 102).
Noel, B., & Blair, P. D. (2000) I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Vancouver, Washington: Champion Press.
Rosof, B. D., (1994) The worst loss. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Camille Wortman Ph.D. Bio
Dr. Wortman studies grief with a special focus on sudden, tragic loss.Learn More