When Grief at Holiday Time Overlaps with Joy
Memories of merrier times can magnify loss, but parents can be wise guides through bereavement
It’s a time of tradition, tasty treats, and holiday cheer. But for people mourning the loss of a loved one, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas — the fabled “most wonderful time of the year” — is often anything but. Grief around the holidays can be the most difficult grief of all.
Someone mourning the loss of a loved one may struggle to join in the merriment, be overcome by memories of holidays past, or try to block out or avoid the celebrations altogether. That’s completely understandable, said Lynda Cheldelin Fell, an emotional healing expert and creator of the “Grief Diaries” series of books. Grieving can be both physically and emotionally exhausting, and some people simply may not have the energy to handle all the holiday merriment.
It’s even harder for a parent grieving the loss of a loved one while trying to create warm holiday memories for their own kids.
“During the holiday season, our schedules are suddenly bursting at the seams with parties, shopping, school events, family expectations and more,” said Cheldelin Fell. “As much as we love this time of year, the stress from trying to accommodate everything drains our battery pretty quick, both physically and emotionally.”
But it is possible to find healing, hope and joy in the holidays in the aftermath of loss. Cheldelin Fell shared more of her thoughts with LifeZette.
Question: Explain why grief during the holidays is more difficult than other times of the year.
Answer: Grief is heightened over the holidays because it is a season steeped in family traditions. Memories of merrier times magnify not just the loss, but the finality that our loved one will never again be part of family photos and other holiday traditions. It also poses painful dilemmas such as how to address the empty Christmas stocking or our loved one’s seat at the dinner table. Finally, because the holiday season is a busy time and the bereaved begin the season already exhausted, their emotional threshold for holiday overload starts out much lower.
Encourage children to treat the griever as we would anyone with an injury: with kindness, compassion, and gentleness.
Q: How does a parent’s emotional state affect their children?
A: Children look to their parents for love, nourishment, safety, and security. When a parent’s emotional state is precarious, it impacts everyone in the household. Although some would argue that children are resilient, it doesn’t mean they aren’t impacted both short- and long-term by what’s going on around them. It’s OK for parents to cry in front of their children; crying is a natural response to sadness and a healthy release of emotion that should never be suppressed. It’s how we do it that matters, because children mimic adult behavior. If a parent lashes out in anger or frustration over a loss, so will the children. If parents suppress grief, they teach a child to do the same. When children are in the room, learning to release our fragile emotions without hysteria is what we aim for.
Q: What steps can parents grieving the loss of a loved one take to make sure the holidays are happy for their children?
A: Try to maintain the usual holiday customs. A familiar routine offers a sense of reassurance that not everything in life has changed. And staying true to what was once familiar can help everyone stay grounded through the holiday hustle. Watch a favorite movie together each evening as a family. One laugh can scatter a hundred griefs, and a funny movie is a wonderful respite from the sorrow. Take time to create peaceful surroundings. Turn off your computer, light a fragrant candle, grab a soft blanket, and indulge in a mug of hot cocoa each evening. A calm parent is a calm child.
Q: Why is it important for parents grieving the loss of a loved one to find hope and healing in the holidays?
A: The heart can hold joy at the same time it holds sorrow. Without grief, there would be no need for hope, so it helps to remember that others share our journey and we aren’t truly alone. Knowing that others survive grief gives us hope that we can, too.
Prepare children ahead of time that grieving leads to unexpected emotional moments.
Q: How can parents help kids understand those who might be grieving the loss of a loved one during the holidays?
A: Help them to understand grief so they feel more comfortable around the bereaved, and less fearful. Using analogies can be helpful. Kids do understand “invisible” and “injury.” Depending upon the child’s age, explain that a broken heart is like a broken leg. Encourage the child to treat the griever as we would anyone with an injury: with kindness, compassion, and gentleness. Finally, prepare children ahead of time that grieving leads to unexpected emotional moments. When they occur, the child (or relative) need do nothing more than offer a gentle hug. Explain that words can’t fix a broken heart, but a heartfelt hug will surely help.
How to Reduce the Holiday Frazzle
It’s often hard to find joy in those first few years after the loss of a loved one, noted Cheldelin Fell. The best approach is to keep things as calm as possible.
These tips can help:
1.) Parents should give themselves lots of breathing room and avoid packing the schedule too full to minimize raw nerves.
2.) Cut yourself slack and go with store-bought food. Grieving is distracting, so opt for deli-style dishes at the grocery story to minimize kitchen injuries — or a trip to the emergency room.
3.) Consider filling your loved one’s stocking with pet treats so it doesn’t go empty, or invite a new widow to join the family dinner. Your invitation will lift their heart and your loved one’s chair will be occupied by someone in need of cheer.
4.) Do something in the community that lifts your spirits. Helping those less fortunate is a good reminder we aren’t alone in our struggles.
5.) Give yourself permission to feel something besides sorrow. If you find yourself humming to holiday music, don’t stop and don’t feel guilty. Enjoy the moment.