Katherine glanced at the oversized banner promoting 25% off all men’s wear. “That’s one department I won’t need to shop in this season,” she thought. A suffocating feeling soon overwhelmed her. The holiday music seemed louder, the decorations larger, and the shoppers multiplied with each panic-stricken stride toward the parking lot. Moments later, she found herself collapsed in her car, weeping uncontrollably.
For most families, year-end holidays are a time of reunion, festive meals, and gift giving. But for the bereaved, those grieving the death of a loved one, this time of year can bring anxiety, mixed emotions, heartache and loneliness.
If you are grieving the death of someone close this season, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the stress and alleviate unnecessary pain.
. Understand that you are working at limited capacity and have less physical and mental energy. You may have trouble focusing and concentrating. You may need more rest. Don’t beat yourself up about this. There is no magical way to cope with your pain during the holiday season. Be gentle and patient with yourself. The holidays will definitely feel different this year and perhaps a number of years to come.
. Be selective with invitations. Don’t accept invitations simply because of obligation, past attendance, or guilt. There are no “shoulds” anymore. Do what makes you feel comfortable surrounded by caring, compassionate people who understand your grief and are willing to support whatever emotions may come up for you.
. Build into each invitation the ability to change your mind. Yes.change your mind. It’s okay to change your mind. With each RSVP, you might say, “I really want to join you, but I’m afraid I’ll wake up that day and not feel like being around a lot of people. So I’m accepting on the condition that I can cancel at the last minute or, if I do attend and it gets too much for me, you won’t be offended if I leave early.” Now you’ve set the stage to be comfortable either way.
. Keep planning simple. The more complex, the more energy you need. Make a list of all your traditional activities. Next to each event write down your thoughts and feelings: This year I don’t have the motivation to cook dinner for twenty guests. In a third column entitled “How could we do this differently?” write alternative ideas to that tradition: Ask my sister to prepare dinner this year or would Christmas brunch be easier. Discuss these new possibilities with family members. Let the list sit for a day or two then go back and make some decisions.
. After you’ve made these decisions, don’t second-guess yourself. And don’t feel guilty. You are doing what you need to do to cope with this intense holiday and all the emotion it brings.
. Limit the activities you do choose. If you decide to bake your famous cookies, make three dozen instead of the usual six. Recruit a family member or friend to shop for the ingredients, decorate the delicacies, and help clean up.
. Break down your chosen activities into small segments. Don’t try to do everything all at once. There is no hidden law that says you must decorate the Christmas tree and the entire house the same day.
. Don’t expect perfection either in what you plan, the gifts you buy for others, or the activities you attend. Shop for gifts via store, mail order catalogs, and the internet. Many merchants will wrap, include a gift card, and ship directly to your loved one.
. Spread the joy around. If you’ve had an opportunity to sort through your loved one’s belongings, now may be the perfect time to present that special memento to your family member.
. Try to add one new tradition in memory of your loved one. Meet at the cemetery as a family to decorate a small Christmas tree. Visit the lake, beach, park, or mountains to release colorful helium balloons with private messages to them attached to each ribbon.
. Communicate with family and friends – they cannot automatically figure out what you need. If you want others to speak openly about your loved one – using their name out loud – you must express your wishes to them. Often those closest to us are uncertain whether mentioning your loved one by name will bring you joy or pain. They need for you to give them permission.
. Find a supportive friend who will stay close to you during those difficult times throughout the holidays. Depression can easily set in along with the desire to hide under the covers. Don’t let this happen to you. If you are feeling blue, call that friend and talk it out. Play soothing music in your home and pull back the curtains to welcome in the sunshine. Call your local 24-hour crisis center or perhaps your favorite ministry’s prayer line. These folks are trained to listen and help you. Don’t shut yourself out from the rest of the world no matter how tempting.
. Spend the holidays with someone. Try not to be alone. Consider when the loneliest times are for you and make arrangements to visit with others, have them visit with you, or plan an activity out.
. Include the children. Don’t be fooled into believing children do not grieve. They simply do not have the language skills to adequately express their pain. Encourage them to draw pictures and decorate cards to hang on the tree or fireplace mantel.
. Spend more time with teenagers and young adults – this may be their first death experience. New emotions associated with the grieving process can be scary. If you are having difficulty connecting with your child, ask a trusted relative to “shepherd,” or watch over, them. Don’t be offended if they find comfort sharing their fears with an adult other than you. Your pride is less important than finding your child a safe haven to express himself.
. Limit your use of drugs and alcohol. Masking the pain doesn’t make it go away – it only postpones the grieving process. You don’t want to compound one painful situation with a long-term addiction.
. Do for others. By volunteering to help your community’s less fortunate, you take the focus off yourself and your pain. Is there a local nursing or retirement home that would appreciate your family’s time?
. If you find yourself happy, smiling or laughing, don’t feel guilty about it. You are entitled to the release laughter brings.
Mary M. McCambridge (AskMaryMac.com) is an award-winning author, speaker, grief coach and consultant helping those grieving the death of a loved one and in personal crisis. She is the author of “Understanding Your Grieving Heart After a Loved One’s Death” and “Surviving the Holidays and Other Significant Events after a Loved One’s Death” and other works in this field.
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