How to Manage Grief During the Holidays

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The holiday season presents special challenges for people who are grieving the death of a loved one. Holidays, which can evoke strong emotions during the best of times, force us to realize how much our lives have been changed by loss. Particularly in the first year, many of those who are grieving are faced with having to develop new holiday rituals and traditions.

A key step in coping is to acknowledge that the first holiday season without your loved one will be especially difficult, advises Regina Nimmo, Children's Grief Educator at Hospice of the Comforter. You can prepare for the holidays in advance by making specific plans and asking for the support that you need from family, friends and, if needed, a grief counselor.

Nimmo offers the following tips for coping with grief during the holidays:

Have realistic expectations. Decide if you can handle the same holiday responsibilities and events that you have in the past without being overwhelmed. Watching others who are celebrating when you are grieving can be painful.

Let family and friends know what you've decided. Once you've reached a decision regarding how you want to celebrate the holidays, share those plans with your loved ones so that they are aware of any changes in your holiday routine.

Accept help. If others offer to take over some of your holiday tasks like shopping, cooking and decorating accept their help. If you still want to do your own shopping but can't face the holiday hustle and bustle, consider shopping online.

Don't isolate yourself. It might be tempting to consider not celebrating the holidays at all, but participating in a few carefully selected activities with others is a healthier approach. 

Allow yourself to be happy. Being happy doesn't mean you have forgotten your loved one. Finding moments of joy and laughter during the holidays can be a source of comfort. Don't feel guilty if you are able to experience happiness in the midst of your grief.

Find comfort in helping others. If you feel it would help you cope, consider giving a donation or gift in memory of your loved one, or consider inviting someone to join your celebration who might alone for the holidays. You could also look into adopting a needy family during the holiday season.

Take care of your physical health. It can be all too easy to use alcohol to self-medicate your mood during the holidays, but remember that alcohol is a depressant and will only make you feel worse. Try to find time for exercise, which can help with depression.

Consider creating a new holiday tradition or ritual. While some grieving people find comfort in established traditions, others find them painful. Talk to your family about any activities you find too distressing and what you might do instead. Here are a few examples of new traditions that celebrate the memory of a deceased loved one:

  • Set a placemat for your loved one on which family members can write memories.
  • Create a memory box. It can be filled with photos of your loved one or written memories from other family members and friends. Young children could contribute drawings.
  • Construct a decorative quilt using favorite colors, patterns, symbols or images that remind you of your loved one.
  • Light a candle or put a special bouquet of flowers on the holiday table in remembrance.
  • If your loved one is interred, visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
  • Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.
  • Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one.
  • Tell stories about your absent loved one and look at photos of them.
  • Consider creating a slide show on the computer that family and friends can watch during the holiday celebration.
  • Play your loved ones favorite music or game, or plan a meal featuring your loved one's favorite foods.

The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one, says Nimmo. The best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, ask for support from others and give yourself permission to take it easy.

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