Holidays are Hard Days

The holidays are difficult for all of us but when a loved one has died, the emotions of grief and the emotions tied to the holidays can be overwhelming. Susan Smith, editor and writer shares interviews with two grief specialists and provides suggestions for surviving the holidays when a loved one has died.

by Susan Smith

Sarah dropped her teenage daughter at the mall, pulled into a parking spot, and sat motionless, staring blankly out a windshield runny with rain.

“It was the first time I realized that the holidays were really here,” she said later. “That I could not somehow make them go away by refusing to recognize them.”

Sarah was dreading her first Christmas without her husband and father of her daughter. She didn’t know how she would make it.

“Any griever, regardless of how long a loved one has been dead, dreads this time of year when they are expected to put on a happy face,” says Jim Burge, a counselor and pastor in Ohio.

“For the person in grief, there are very few songs to sing. All that once was melodious now seems hollow, monotone and draining.”

Well-meaning relatives pressure the person in grief to participate in family traditions, as if nothing has changed. Good-hearted friends encourage the griever to “come over, put your grief to rest for a while, and have a good time.” As if they could.

In her book, Renewing Your Spirit, grief counselor and New Leaf E-Magazine publisher Sherry Williams White writes that grievers are often surprised that their emotions swing wildly at the holidays, when they may expect to feel happier.

“Holidays remind you, in a surprisingly deeper way, that your family photo is forever changed,” she says. “Do you feel agitated or out of control? Hopeless or isolated? Even though it may not seem like it to you, it is normal for you to feel this way as holidays and other special days approach. Facing these days can be one of the most challenging experiences you have to endure.”

"Grief at the holidays is more intense," she says, partly because “you’re not only grieving your loved one, but also a holiday that has changed forever because of your loved one’s death,” and partly because the season comes with an abundance of incessant reminders: decorations, parties, music, cards, even gifts. Throw into the mix the longevity of the season, and you have the potential for unrelenting pain.

“It’s a good feeling to know we’ve survived one holiday,” says Burge. “But when right on the heals of one comes another and then another, that’s tough. Very tough.”

Williams says there are ways to make the holidays manageable and, on occasion, even enjoyable. “Managing the holidays doesn’t mean eliminating the pain and grief,” she says. “We know that’s not possible or we already would have done it. Rather, it means learning to live with the pain and grief.”

According to Burge, that means allowing yourself time to know what you want this year, and then doing it: cutting back on some traditions, changing others, shopping less, or relaxing more. Williams encourages grievers to understand that the pain and fear “are real and they are a part of you.”

Above all, she advises, remember that you are grieving because you have loved. “There’s not a person I know who would give up the pain of their loss if it meant giving up the joy of having known love and companionship from the person who has died.”

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