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Grief and Loss at the Holidays

Silver Hill Hospital

As we enter a Holiday season like no other, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the last bombshell 2020 has in store for all of us is a bag of mixed feelings around the Holidays. Grief and loss are almost always part of the mixed bag of emotions that the Holiday season brings, but this year the grief has a universality and poignancy that is widely felt. Everyone is approaching the 2020 Holidays having lost something: a way of life, the loss of cherished traditions, the inability to see people…the list goes on. Many are facing the holidays having lost someone. These are all painful losses and they come in packages of painful memories. Some people dismiss their losses by saying, “at least I am alive and I have my health” or “although I cannot see my family, they are all safe.” However, re-framing or avoiding loss simply allows our challenging emotions to creep up in other insidious ways. Loss and grief find a way to be felt. And everyone feels it. There are no suffering Olympics. Grief expert David Kessler emphasizes that the “worst loss to experience is the one you are experiencing right now.” All grief and loss must be  “witnessed” to move through it. Here are some suggestions for facing the Holidays and acknowledging the many challenges and losses this year:

Take some time in self-reflection. Name all the emotions that you are experiencing as you experience them. They will come in waves. What feels empty this year? What do you miss the most? What traditions will be especially painful this year? What words comfort you? What words would you tell a friend? Can you say those words to yourself?

Cope ahead. What relatives or friends are the most challenging at this time? What questions do they ask and what attitudes to they bring that are the most unsettling? Can preparing for them in advance help? Where do you feel ignored? Likewise, consider who you can be with who shares your loss in a way that is supportive.  Remind those people how they can support you either (safely) in person or by phone/FaceTime/Zoom. Reach out to them. At family gatherings, have a plan to “name” your loss. Others may avoid addressing it out of fear that it will cause you further pain when all you really require is empathy.  Perhaps consider saying something like, “It’s no secret that I miss Pat. I know that all of you do to.” Let others share along with you. Likewise, admitting that this is the first year without a cherished job, relationship, home, vacation, tradition, etc. is equally important. Consider what skills you can use to alleviate stress. Forbid yourself to say words like “ought” and “should.”  Plan to delegate or eliminate the responsibilities of whatever Holiday gatherings you plan.

While cherished Holiday rituals may not happen this year, what new rituals can you observe that honors your loss and the gravity of the year? Remember, if you do something this year and do it again next year, it’s now a tradition. Here are some suggestions: Make a “gift” box or stocking honoring your loved one. Fill it with all the wonderful memories and “gifts” your loved one has given you over the years. Each year, bring the box out and recall those memories and add to it. While a loved one’s seat at the table cannot be filled, keeping their memories alive at the Holidays is a gift that keeps on giving. Dedicate a new or a favorite Menorah or Christmas ornament that you bring out each year. There also wonderful rituals you can start. “Flying Wish Paper” allows you to write your wish, your memory, your intention on paper and watch it “fly” away. It is very inexpensive and you can find it on Amazon at in many gift shops. What else can you think of?

Whatever you do and wherever your thought take you, expect tears. But also be open to seeing the joy: the joy in your memories, the timeless joy of the Holiday, and the joy in the small things that sustain you.