In the movies, holidays are a time of joy and celebrations. But for many the holidays are a time of mourning for a loved one who has passed away. Sarah Mallard Wakefield, M.D., a psychiatrist at Texas Tech Physicians, said grief is intense sadness due to loss. Holidays may intensify the awareness of that loss and bring on feelings of grief.
“A person’s expectation sometimes is that holidays are a magically happy time and something is wrong with you if you feel sad,” Wakefield said. “Often during this time families are all together, making it more noticeable that someone is missing. There are annual events and traditions that you attended with that person who passed away. It is hard to avoid the memory of someone with so many reminders that they are missing.”
So Wakefield said to remember that the sense of loss never goes away. Grief gets better when a person learns how to live alongside the sense of loss, which is done through coping. One way to cope is to allow yourself to feel sad.
“It’s OK to feel sad at times during the holidays, and it’s OK to be alone during the holidays,” Wakefield said. “Sometimes the energy spent trying to cheer yourself up depletes you even more. Having a good cry can be cleansing and renewing.”
Wakefield added that an important coping strategy is to stop avoiding the memory.
“Grief is healed in the remembering and celebrating the life of the person you lost, not in avoiding that memory,” Wakefield said. “Remember them by telling stories or by honoring their memory by doing something they love, volunteering with or for people who remind you of them, or doing something nice for someone who reminds you of them.”
Another coping strategy is to engage with people who have experienced a similar loss. This can be done through support groups in person or online. It is also helpful to go to your local bookstore or find an online blog and read of someone else’s experience coping with a similar loss.
During the holidays, it is important to remember that grief is not limited to loved ones who have passed away but can include a divorce or separation, children leaving the home, losing a pet, or a major change in a person’s life such as retiring. There are many events that lead to a sense of loss, and it is important to honor the sense of loss you feel and not compare it to that of someone else’s grief as more or less worthy. Every person feels and expresses their grief differently.
Children also grieve their losses but often in different ways than adults. Children are more likely to act out behaviorally or withdraw from activities they previously enjoyed. Wakefield said its okay to ask children questions about grief and to get them involved in the remembering strategies outlined above.
Most importantly, if you are suffering from grief, take care of yourself. Limit activities to those that bring you the most joy or that are most important to do. Don’t over commit yourself or your family during the holidays. Take shortcuts for meal planning, buy prepared foods, go out to dinner or make it a potluck to share the burden of preparing the meal. Assigning every family or family member a different course (appetizers, main course, dessert, drinks) can be fun and considerably lessen one person’s load. Monitor your alcohol intake, and make sure you are getting enough sleep.
“Monitor yourself,” Wakefield said. “If sad feelings become sad days, and bad days become bad weeks, consider seeing a mental health professional. Grief is not depression, but it can lead to depression.”
Untreated depression can intensify into thoughts of harming yourself or even others. Wakefield said help is available. If you experience severe depressive symptoms, seek help immediately through a suicide crisis hotline, calling 9-1-1or going to the nearest emergency room.
“It is important to remember that we all grieve,” Wakefield said. “It is a shared and normal human experience. No one walks through life without experiencing loss. Some will experience it sooner, more frequently or more intensely than others, but we all grieve. Grieving is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that we had the opportunity to experience something so beautiful that the absence of it is painful. It is a sign of our connectedness.”
By Suzanna Cisneros