How To Handle Holiday Grief

The idea is to be wisely generous. Things may not be the same this year either due to death, divorce, or distance from family. I am working with a beautiful young mother whose husband just recently left the family. This is a horrific time for her and their children. Instead of preparing the big Christmas dinner for all the extended family like she has done every year, she has decided that she just doesn’t have the resources, energy or desire to do it this year. She is going to be generous in a different manner. She and her kids are going to spend several hours working in a soup kitchen, Christmas Day. When life becomes different, do something different to help propel your self forward into a new way of existing. There’s no better way to get a grip on grief than to be with others who also know loss.

Whether we are grieving or not this holiday season, it seems that good health care goes right out the window. We eat poorly, sleep poorly, and don’t take time to exercise with the hustle and bustle of the season. Grieving is emotional, mentally and physically exhausting on top of an already accelerated pace. Anguish, isolation, loneliness, confusion, anxiety, irritability and nightmares are exasperated by grief. Delete what isn’t necessary. Simplify. Shari, my dearest friend going through cancer treatments said it best; “I have become more of an observer than participant this Christmas.” Notice what activities soothe you from those that stress you. Choose well for yourself and take advantage of using the extra time you have for sleep! (Let the recent study showing those who get more than adequate sleep were deemed to be more attractive than those subjects lacking good sleep inspire you!)

Look at what has changed from this year to last; all changes are difficult, even when they are for the good. Include, don’t exclude, family members and friends during grief. Isolation leads to incubation of feelings. Give them air; and share! A dear friend of mine, newly married and now living with step-children, was crying recently saying, “I’m happyââ?¬Â¦I really amââ?¬Â¦I’m with the love of my love and I love the kidsââ?¬Â¦.but this will be the first Christmas I have missed with my parents!” Any difference is difficult. I’m so proud of my friend for being open and honest with her feelings. It would be so tempting to down-play or ignore the losses when we have so much to be grateful for. Too often we feel guilty for grieving. Loss is loss. When I choose a road to the right, I turn my back on the left. I cannot have it all; not simultaneously, certainly. That which I resist, persists!

Here’s what is a crying shame: Tears, which should be the most natural, accepted way of coping with pain, stress, and sorrow are hardly mentioned in our psychiatric literature. Tears are secreted through a duct, much like urination or exhalation. They remove waste products from the body. Perhaps that’s why we often report feeling so much better after a good cry. Not only is the venting of emotions liberating, but the actual chemical composition increases feelings of well-being. (Cutting onions doesn’t cut it, by the way; the chemical release is NOT the same!)

Teach your children the importance of crying. One of my favorite 8-year-olds sits at a table in school with a classmate who just lost his father. She said that sometimes Hunter will be doing his homework and then will all of a sudden start to cry. Her wise mother has taught her daughter to go put her arm around Hunter and say, “If you want to cry, you just go right ahead and cry. We all care about you and we’re here for you!”

Remember: Invisible tears are the hardest to wipe away.

Flexibility is the key to mental health. Weave the life that was to the life that now exists. Allow yourself to feel joy; to laugh. It is not disrespectful. Celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays where you can. Recognize that holidays will not be the same. If you try and keep everything the same, you will be disappointed. Do things bit differently; leave town, open gifts on the 23rd, attend another religions church services, or have diner at a different time or place. Its O.K. to no longer do what has traditionally been done. It’s a positive way to ease the pressure!