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The cheeriness of the holidays can sometimes be hard to bear when you're dealing with the recent loss of a loved one. Here are seven simple things to keep in mind when navigating the festive season.
The holidays can be a stressful, emotional time for many, but when you’re grieving the death of a loved one, it can be even tougher. Loneliness, guilt and feeling out of sync with the rest of the world are common reactions.
We spoke to Dawn Cruchet, a grief educator and counselor based in Montreal, for some expert advice.
1. It's okay to be upset
The ache of missing someone is often magnified during the holidays. Stores, TV commercials, music - they're all urging the world to be jolly and enthusiastic, which can be difficult for a griever. "The holidays are especially hard because they go on for so long—all of November and December, and part of January," says Cruchet. "Plus, all your senses—your sight, hearing, smell and taste—are being tickled with decorations, songs, and food. They're all reminding you that your person isn't here to share this time with you."
If you feel melancholy, or angry, allow yourself to experience these emotions; they're all part of a healthy grieving process. "If you push down your feelings, they're going to reappear as fear, anxiety, or bad dreams. It's important to get what's inside outside. To pretend that nothing has happened is unnatural, and makes things worse," says Cruchet. Being true to your feelings and following wherever they take you is healthy and completely normal.
2. Take one year at a time
You might find it too painful during your first holiday without a loved one to decorate your home, exchange gifts or send cards. Cruchet says this is completely normal and there's no right or wrong way to deal with what December brings.
Don't beat yourself up if you can't face traditions such as cooking a huge holiday meal. "It's okay to have ham or even hot dogs for dinner. It doesn't mean that it's going to be forever. It's just one year," says Cruchet. "Where you are now will be very different from where you are next year."
3. Talk about your loss
Avoiding talk of your deceased loved one will make you feel worse, not better. "It's important to talk about the person who died," says Cruchet. "Don't be afraid to share memories and tears." Gather your friends and family to relive stories and photos of past holidays. You'll share laughs and a few tears as you fondly reminisce. Let those memories give you strength and comfort.
Some grievers even like to propose a toast, set a place at the table, or light a candle to honour their person. Do what makes you feel best.
4. Handling invitations
The holidays often bring party invites, but what's a grieving person to do when they feel less than celebratory? When an invite arrives, Cruchet recommends asking if you can RSVP the day of the event. "You're not going to know how you're going to feel until that day. If they need to know numbers in advance, too bad. People who love you will be okay with it."
If you decide to go but are still feeling apprehensive, try the 20-minute rule. "Go for 20 minutes and then reassess," says Cruchet. If you're having a good time, stay. If you're feeling overwhelmed, it's okay to leave. Give yourself kudos for trying.
5. It's okay to accept help
"Many of us like to be in control, and find it hard to accept offers of help," says Cruchet. "It can reflect our vulnerability." When friends and family ask if they can lend a hand, it's not a sign of weakness to let them. "Grieving is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy," says Cruchet. "If you don't have the energy to cook a turkey, wrap gifts, or write cards, let someone else do it."
6. Don't feel guilty
It's not uncommon to feel you're dishonouring your loved one's memory if you have a good time. How can you laugh when they're gone? "The fact that you smile or laugh, or can be caught up in a movie has nothing to do with how much you love or miss that person," says Cruchet. "We adjust to the person's death and lack of physical presence. And part of that adjustment means getting on with our lives."
7. Help others
Some people find that focusing on the needs of others during the holidays gets them through the season. Volunteer at a food bank or animal shelter, organize toy donations for a children's charity, or bake cookies for your local seniors' centre. It feels good to give the gift of time and thoughtfulness. You might even start a new holiday tradition. "Giving can become a tribute to the person who has died," says Cruchet.
We have more advice on dealing with holiday stress, including how to avoid fights with your partner.