The holidays are meant to be a joyous time. But for someone dealing with grief, celebrations can be extremely difficult. If you are grieving over a recent loss, or one that happened years ago, experts say there are things you can do to make facing the demands and the expectations of the holidays a little easier.
“There are no rules on how to deal with grief during the holidays,” says South University, West Palm Beach Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program Director, Dr. Denny Cecil-Van Den Heuvel. “You get to decide what is best for you.”
Cecil-Van Den Heuvel speaks from both personal and professional experience. In addition to her university duties, she is also in private practice where she helps patients deal with loss and life’s struggles. She also experienced a great loss of her own. Twenty-six years ago, her husband was killed in a plane crash, leaving her to raise their 5-year-old son alone. She was just 31.
“It’s not easy being a widow or having a family member die, because people watch you and make judgments about you and about how you are coping with loss,” says Dr. Cecil-Van Den Heuvel. “You’re not supposed to get over it. You don’t get over loss. You integrate the loss into your life so you become stronger and wiser. You understand the value of life more from your losses.”
Cecil-Van Den Heuvel has advice on how to handle your grief during the holidays.
Honor your loved one
Finding a way to honor your loved one during the holiday celebration can be especially important, and meaningful, if the loss is recent.
“Honor the one who is not there, and embrace what no one got to experience about that person but you. That may entail going to the gravesite, or to where the ashes are spread,” Cecil-Van Den Heuvel says. “You can even do a ritual of saying one thing about that person that they would have brought to the holiday if they had been there.”
It’s O.K. to be sad
Pretending to be happy and cheerful, especially after a recent loss, can be a tremendous strain.
“If you choose to be melancholy and sad, that’s O.K. – you need to mourn. A lot people walk a wide circle around it, but everyone deals with grief and loss differently,” Cecil-Van Den Heuvel says. “You don’t have to do the ‘chin up – everyone has to be happy’ routine.”
She also recommends journaling if you are thinking a lot about your loss as a way to explore and express your feelings.
It’s O.K. to be happy
Don’t be afraid to take part in fun holiday activities, and don’t feel guilty if you do find yourself having a good time during the celebrations.
“Enjoy the presence of those around you,” encourages Cecil-Van Den Heuvel.
Don’t set yourself up
Cecil-Van Den Heuvel believes it is easy for those who are grieving to set themselves up to have a bad holiday. “People anticipate what they’re going to feel and set themselves up to some degree to have a horrible time,” she explains. “Do not set the stage for what the day is going to be like. Just allow it to be what it is.”
She speaks of her own experience dealing with the loss of her husband.
“There were many times that I thought ‘This is going to be the hardest year’ because it was the fifth anniversary of his death, or some other milestone. And, many times it turned out not to the hardest year despite those milestones – but it could have been a hard year if I’d pushed it. Don’t choose to go in the black hole and stay there.”
Be authentic to yourself
Being authentic to yourself is the most important aspect of grieving during the holidays, or anytime.
“Allow yourself to feel the pain so you can integrate it into your life and learn and grow from it,” she says. “Nobody wants to suffer, but suffering has its purpose, and that purpose is growth. There is always going to be life and death, and we need to grow from grief rather than being victim to it.”