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Coping With Loss During the Holidays

 

If there ever was a time that we’re expected to feel joyful, it’s the holidays. But if you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one—especially a recent loss—all that holiday cheer may only magnify your grief.

“Your sadness may feel sadder; and your sense of loss, more intense,” said Paula Finestone, PhD, clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. Moreover, even if your loss isn’t fresh, the holidays can still be a painful reminder of your loved one’s absence. There are ways—large and small—to make the holidays less difficult, however. Here are some suggestions from Dr. Finestone:

Imagine your loved one’s advice. Ask yourself, “What would my loved one want for me right now?” Very likely, “your loved one would urge you to live your life as fully as possible, even now,” Finestone said.

Accept your feelings—all of them. “Grief isn’t a tidy, predictable process—there’s no right way to mourn,” Finestone said. You might feel sad one moment and peaceful the next. You might even experience holiday joy. So give yourself permission to feel happy as well as sad and to not feel guilty about any positive emotions. “You’re not dishonoring your loved one if you have moments of happiness,” Finestone emphasized. “Again, this is what your loved one would wish for you.”

Be gentle with yourself, and do only what feels right. “It’s OK to say ‘Not this year,’” Finestone said. “If Dad always strung the lights and you’re not ready to do that yet, that’s fine.” Speak up about your needs, and don’t push yourself to take part in activities or traditions that don’t seem manageable. And it’s OK to change your mind at the last minute if your feelings change.

Be choosy about the company you keep. Surround yourself with people who care about you and will respect your feelings and needs. And try to minimize your time with those who might add to your hurt and stress, even unintentionally,” Finestone said.

Honor your loved one. You might light a candle in your loved one’s memory or add an extra plate at a holiday dinner. And since the holidays are a time of giving, you could also make a donation to a charity your loved one cherished.

Celebrate in a new way. If the thought of a holiday meal at home without your loved one is too upsetting, consider eating out. Plan a trip away if that will distract you. Or lend a hand at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or nursing home. Helping others may lift your spirits.

Reach out. “Don’t isolate yourself, especially if your grief is making it hard to function,” Finestone cautioned. Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend, seek out a support group, or get professional help from a therapist. If you have any thoughts of harming yourself, call 911 right away or go the nearest emergency department.

Let warm memories comfort you. Finally, “remind yourself that your loved one will always be a part of you even though he or she is no longer with you physically,” Finestone said. Do your best to focus on happy memories of your time together rather than your loss.