. . . during holidays such as Christmas, Halloween or an anniversary
Each year we hear of the pressure’s families feel during December – stress from overspending, unrealistic expectations, and often, violence due to alcohol and other drugs.
Pressures like these are multiplied when we’re grieving.
Decisions about a Christmas tree or it to send cards need to be made. Yes? No? Maybe? Will the children want to hang stockings as usual? Will we continue with family traditions or make new ones? Talking about these issues helps not only our decisions but also helps both our grief and our mourning.
Just to be clearer, grief is about our feelings, while mourning is about the actions and rituals we do around a death. Both need our attention.
I’ve not found one right or wrong way of working through grief: just ways that helped me and others I’ve supported during my years as a counsellor – and especially when I was working full time as a bereavement counsellor. I also know the anticipation was always worse than the actual occasion whether that was Christmas, birthday or another anniversary. So, like Christmas, or another anniversary approaches, do what feels right for you – gut instinct worked well for me.
Strange as it may seem, while being necessary, grief is also a privilege: it stems from giving and receiving love. Just as love doesn’t end with death, neither does grief end with the funeral. Sometimes our grief is more painful as the weeks and months pass.
It can be more intense on birthdays; on the birthday of the person who died as well as our own, and, especially for children of the deceased, reaching the age of the loved one who suicided can be critical. Holidays, special family dates and anniversaries all alter the intensity of our grief. These dates may not adversely affect all the family, although the first experience of each event is usually traumatic. The first anniversary of a death can be especially painful as we relive the events of a year ago
So, how will you cope? Will you make a plan or take it as it comes? Most people find simple advance planning helpful; just remember that plans are not carved in stone and they can be changed even at the last minute. For instance, you decide to be on your own then find you want company – if this happens don’t berate yourself for the change, after all, it’s impossible to plan how we will feel in the future so live in the present time, in the ‘now’. I hope these tips will help you, and help your friends, understand grief.
Be as gentle, compassionate, and loving to yourself as you would to a grieving friend. Memories are yours to keep so talking, laughing, and crying over them means you are growing through your grief. By the time the first anniversary arrives most of us have realised that ignoring grief does not make it go away. Conversely, talking about our pain does not make grief worse, although sometimes, or often, it may feel that way.
Often friends stop talking about the deceased person as they assume that when you cry ‘they have made you feel bad’ – as if their talk could increase our pain – we know how painful it is and know their talk cannot intensify it. I believe it’s because they feel uncomfortable with our tears and not their concern for us that stops them from talking about the person. It’s difficult to explain to them that our crying is beneficial. No-one ever says they had a bad cry, it’s always ‘I had a good cry.’
At Christmas, some of us choose to change our routine and be away from our usual surroundings. The choice is yours. Don’t do what you think you ‘should’ do – those ‘shoulds’ are rarely helpful.
Friends and family may urge you to ‘keep active’, ‘get on with life’, ‘you have to let her go’ and other non-helpful advice such as ‘he wouldn’t want to you keep crying’. I am sure you have heard all these and other such homilies. One I hated was ‘you’re lucky to have other children’ – as if our children were interchangeable.
Keeping busy will not heal grief. Experience shows that increases stress and merely postpones or denies the need to talk, feel, and cry. ‘Time heals’ the vague ‘they’ also say. Not true. It’s what we do with the time that does the healing: ask anyone who used medication to dull the pain – when the pills stopped the pain was still there, just waiting to be dealt with. As a past colleague said, ‘time doesn’t heal; it doesn’t get better, what happens is things get different.’
Eat healthy, natural foods or have vitamin supplements if your health practitioner recommends them. Rest is important and exercise, such as walking, can be of immense value. Walking is good at any time but especially now if you are feeling tired or not sleeping well: others prefer a good workout at the gym, run, or cycle. I don’t.
Special dates often, in fact usually, have no significance to anyone else, so be prepared to take what you need. Your grief is your right and I encourage you to claim it. Don’t allow others to damage it because of their ignorance.
If you haven’t tried journal writing now is a good time to see if it helps you – many love their notebook that listens to everything and makes no judgment.
The Canterbury Bereaved by Suicide Society (who I worked for) wrote the following for one of their pamphlets and newsletter – and these ideas apply to all deaths whether heart attack of cot-death, road accident or cancer
- Remember you are not alone. Find someone to talk to.
- Use your loved one’s name. Talk about them, good times, bad times, and other holiday memories.
- Eliminate as much stress as possible. Plan ahead, keep it simple. Ignore others expectations.
- Involve your children in your discussions and planning…it will help their grief too.
- Do what is right for you and your family, don’t be pressured into doing things that aren’t OK
- Use whatever form of spirituality is meaningful to you.
- Pace yourself physically and emotionally, be tolerant of your limitations…grief is tiring!
- Christmas will come no matter how much you may not want it. You will survive.
- Remember the worst has already happened!
- Take one day at a time, one hour at a time.
- Anticipation of the event is always worse than the actual day.
- Buy a special gift and give it to a charity in your loved one’s name
- Burn a candle over Xmas to symbolise their presence in your thoughts.
- Write a letter to them in your journal. Describe how Xmas is without them.
- Change holiday habits: Xmas breakfast instead of dinner, restaurant instead of at home.
- Keep all your holiday habits. For some, the familiar is reassuring.
- Expressing your feelings honestly always helps.
- Volunteer to work at the local mission, old folks home.
- Have a special toast to absent loved ones before the main meal.
- Tie a remembrance ribbon on the Xmas tree – your tree, or the town one.
- Set aside an evening to look at photos and talk about him or her.
- Make a memory book. Children find this really helpful too.
- Make a list of things you found helpful to share with others – and keep for next year as grief, although it reduces, continues.
I have learnt to live around the hole in my heart – and you can too.
Heather Hapeta (photographer, author, travel writer)
My Amazon Author page is here