For many the holidays are a time of joy, fellowship, and celebration. However, for people who have lost a loved one, it can be a time when emotional pain is amplified, and loneliness heightened as they face the prospect of a holiday without their loved one. Nothing can replace a loved one who has died, but there are some things that can help make the holiday season easier.
People and families separated from each other due to health or distance can also experience a sense of loss during the holiday season, although not as intensely as someone who has lost a loved one.
These tips may help you focus on ways you can still find joy in the holidays while coping with feelings of grief or isolation.
- Accept your feelings. Pay attention to and be honest with yourself about your feelings. Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling; name the feeling; write it down or say it out loud; and acknowledge that sadness, pain or whatever your feelings are – they are ‘your’ feelings. Allow yourself to feel them without guilt.
- Share your feelings with family and/or close friends. It is important to stay connected. Use the telephone, Zoom, social media, etc. to communicate with family, friends, or members of your faith community. Don’t wait for others to reach out to you. Communicate your needs. If you don’t feel up to your usual holiday routine, say so. Be willing to step out of your feelings of loss of control by reaching out to others, which actually helps you regain a sense of control. Perhaps there are others in your community who are alone and isolated whom you might call.
- If grieving, talk about your deceased loved one. It’s common for others to avoid mentioning the name of a deceased person to try to protect those who are grieving from additional emotional pain. Reminisce and do special things to memorialize the special person who died. Give a list of ways to memorialize them to other family members. Include the deceased loved one’s name in your holiday conversations. If you speak candidly about your loved one, others will recognize your need to remember them and will also talk about the person.
- Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to not live up to the expectations of others, or perhaps even your expectations of yourself (if you expect yourself to be just like you were during past holidays and/or before your loved one’s death). It is all right if you don’t please everyone. Be willing to adapt your usual routine. Listen to your heart. Remind yourself you can be “iffy” and change your mind about holiday celebrations. If earlier decisions don’t feel right as the time approaches, then make the necessary adjustments. Also, be aware of the importance of maintaining routines of self-care. Go for a walk, stretch, read a book, meditate, learn and practice relaxation techniques.
- Change what needs to be changed. Remember there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the season. Changing routines that are part of your tradition can soften the pain: the time of gift exchange and opening of gifts, the meal together and services attended. Some may wish to follow family traditions, while others may choose to change them. It’s okay to do things differently. Because you skip the tradition this year does not mean that you cannot go back to it another time. Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the essentials. After the holidays are over, have a time of reflection. The family may have missed some traditions that were set aside; therefore, you may want to restore some of them next year.
- Set limitations. Realize that it isn’t going to be easy. Do the things that are important and special to you. Delegate or accept the offers of others to help wrap gifts, shop or address cards. Divide everything into small pieces: your shopping, your decorating, your cooking, your letter or card sending. Do not over-obligate and over work yourself. Compromise, buy from online stores, limit the number of gifts you give, give cash or gift certificates. Just take things a day at a time and do the best you can.
- Express and explore your faith. It is not uncommon for theological issues to be raised during the holidays, especially after the death of a loved one. If you have questions or are having difficulties with your spiritual beliefs, talk with your religious leader. You will find him or her to be helpful, supportive and approachable. Rely on your spiritual values. This can be an opportunity to renew and deepen your faith even if attending services in-person is not an option this year.
- Tap into your creativity. Often when individuals are stressed by grief associated with loss, there can be a loss of creativity. Make a decision to cook or bake something either you or your loved one used to cook/bake. Look at a website, e.g. Pinterest, for easy holiday decorations, Christmas gifts to make, or recipes to try. Involve others in your household and make it a special time together to remember your loved one and/or the simple joys that exist.
- Celebrate you. Focus on your strengths, past successes, and some of the healthy coping skills utilized during your life’s journey. Remember: it’s not what you don’t have or what you can’t do, it’s what you do have and what you can do in the present.
- Help others. Look for opportunities to invest yourself in helping others: call a lonely person, give to a food bank or shelter, adopt a child or senior in need and give them a special holiday. Take the focus off your pain and your troubles by investing yourself in helping others. After all, ‘giving’ is what the holiday season is about.
Most importantly, if you are having an exceptionally difficult time this holiday season, reach out to grief counselors, mental health providers or for religious support. Help is available and people do care.
Lower Cape Fear LifeCare’s grief care programs, for adults and children, are open to anyone in the community who has lost a loved one. Our yearly “Hope for the Holidays” grief group workshops can help people cope with their feelings and find news ways to celebrate the holiday season. Visit lifecare.org for a schedule of upcoming grief care groups and workshops.
Kelly Erola, MD, FAAHPM, FAAFP, is currently the Chief Medical Officer for Lower Cape Fear LifeCare, based in Wilmington, NC, where she has worked since 2017. Previously, she was Chief Medical Officer for Hospice Savannah, Inc. for 16 years and physician leader of the Steward Center for Palliative Care. Dr. Erola is board certified in hospice and palliative care medicine and has been involved full-time in palliative care since 2002.