Tips for Coping with Grief during the Holidays

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Cindy Childers
Masonic Home Shelbyville Chaplain

Someone very astute indicated that grief is as common as a hand yet as individualized as a fingerprint. These are wise words. Grief is a common denominator that threads through all of our lives but the journey is woven differently; forever changing one’s own story. It is inevitable that there will be times when we will encounter deep suffering or know someone who will. We grieve loved ones, pets, injustice, relationships and changes. We’re not sure what to do or say or whether what is felt is normal. The difficulty lies in that no person’s perspective, story, memories, encounters, processing abilities and emotions are the same; so, the reaction to grief and the way we navigate through it has no precise roadmap. Grieving is one of life’s greatest challenges yet the price of loving intensely. Grief is the unwelcomed gift of significance.

November 13, 2002, was a beautiful sunny winter day. The electricity in the air was palpable as my dad Charlie and I rode our 4-wheelers deep into the woods for the opening day of the hunting season. The area I had selected for my dad to hunt was a favorite. In what seemed like microseconds, the anticipation of a perfect day turned into tragedy as I watched him fall 20 feet from my tree stand and die as a result of his injuries. This on-going grief has changed my life story forever. There will never be back to normal. Grief makes us face a new normal.

There is no right or wrong way to approach grief. For those who are in the process, give yourself the grace to do what you need to do. Cry, scream, bang your fists, hide, escape, be angry or stay busy. All I could do was just concentrate on taking the next breath. That was a good first step and all I could muster.

Although difficult in practice, allow yourself the freedom of moment-by-moment existence.  There’s usually nothing so important that it has to be addressed immediately. Wherever one find’s their inner strength – whether in God, a higher power, nature, spirituality – I have heard others say setting reachable goals is a good way to begin absorbing grief. It might just be getting out of bed, pouring a cup of coffee and walking out to get the newspaper. The next day’s goal might be getting dressed, fixing a meal or writing a note. Break up the day into segments and offer brief sentence prayers to ask for strength for the next moment.

Grief is not something one gets through as if there is an ending to it. Rather, grief is absorbed, becoming part of one’s new persona and worldview. Take it at your own pace and don’t let someone dictate how you do it.

What to avoid doing during the grieving process? 
The advice to not make big decisions is worthy. Seventeen years later, I still hear my mother voice regret over selling the house so quickly or letting others do the thinking for her. Also, don’t go to that dark place of what if and if only. Although it is a normal response to many situations, avoid it. When those thoughts start to creep in, whisper aloud, ‘I’m not going there.’ Even if it must be repeated multiple times throughout the day, keep up the mantra.

What is considered normal during the grieving process?
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or powerless. It’s normal to feel like you may have let your loved one down. It’s normal to feel resentful or angry. It’s normal to wonder “What’s the use?” and to think nothing matters. It’s normal to feel lonely. It’s normal to feel relief and guilt at the same time. It’s normal to feel panicked.

What role should family and friends play in the grieving process?
One gift you can offer them is to be present in their pain. There are keys to caring. Focus on the person. Hear what is being said. Sit in silence and become comfortable with listening.  People gain insight when they talk and we listen. Let them share their story. When the timing is right, caregivers can share their insight but only after the storyteller has been heard.

When should you seek professional help?
In hindsight, I wish I had sought out a grief support group or counselor to help with the incredible guilt associated with my father’s accident. It would have helped tremendously to hear other people were experiencing similar emotions and feeling stuck. It is good to have a safe place to vent and receive help from a third party who is not directly attached to the situation and can offer unbiased help and guidance. If your grief feels like it’s too much to bear or becomes chronic, it’s a good idea to seek help from a professional.

Sometime after my dad’s death, it was time to clean out his hunting closet. All six of his children gathered in a room and my brother brought each treasure out one at a time; holding them carefully as if they were sacred relics.  Each item brought some kind of a memory with it that was attached specifically to one of my siblings. It was therapeutic. It was a good day. Stories were shared. Belly laughs were heard and eyes watered. I remember looking around the room and observing what grief looks like and how varied it is in one’s own journey. I also wondered about the memories I hadn’t been a part of but my siblings were and how these must affect their life stories and worldview. Sharing the memories multiplied the healing process.

Tips for Coping with Grief during the Holidays
The best truth I’ve ever read about grief is that it never ends but it changes. It is absorbed through time and becomes part of your life story. There’s no right way to grieve but here are some tips that may help.

  1. Acknowledge that the holidays will be different and will be tough.
  2. Decide which traditions you want to keep and those you want to change. Create a new tradition.
  3. Decide where you want to spend the holidays; you may want to change the location or it may be of comfort to keep it the same. Either way, don’t be forced; make a conscious decision about the location.
  4. Plan ahead and communicate with the people you will spend the holiday with in advance to make sure everyone is in agreement about traditions and plans.
  5. Remember that not everyone will be grieving the same way.
  6. It’s important to understand that the way others want to spend the holiday may not match how you want to spend the holiday.
  7. Put out a memory stocking or memory box where everyone can write down treasured memories. Pick a time to read them together.
  8. Include one of your loved one’s favorite dishes or food at your holiday gatherings.
  9. Be honest. Tell people what you do want for the holidays and what you don’t want to do.
  10. Make a donation to a charity that was important to your loved one.
  11. Buy a gift you would have given your loved one and donate it to a local charity.
  12. Pick a few special items that belonged to your loved one and gift them to friends or family who will appreciate them.
  13. Where a piece of clothing or jewelry that belongs to your loved one.
  14. Make a memorial ornament or wreath.
  15. If you’re having a hard time parting with your loved one’s clothing, use the holidays as an opportunity to donate some items to a homeless shelter or other charity.
  16. Visit your loved one’s gravesite and leave a grave blanket, wreath or other meaningful holiday item.
  17. Journal if you are having an especially hard day.
  18. Skip holiday events in you’re feeling overloaded or overwhelmed, and don’t feel guilty if you do.
  19. Don’t get trapped. When you go to holiday events, drive separately so you can leave if you need to.
  20. Talk to the kids about the holidays. It can be confusing for kids that the holidays can be both happy and sad after a death.
  21. Don’t feel obligated to send out holiday cards.
  22. Skip or minimize the decorations this year. You’ll see plenty of decorations throughout the community.
  23. Crying is okay. The holidays are everywhere and who knows what may trigger emotions.
  24. Volunteer in your loved one’s memory.
  25. Ignore people who want to tell you what you should do for the holidays. Listen to yourself, trust yourself, and communication with your family about what works for you.
  26. Seek gratitude. Try to find one daily gratitude throughout the holiday season.
  27. If making the holiday dinner is causing stress, ask someone else to cook or buy dinner this year.
  28. See a counselor or attend a grief group. The holidays are especially tough, so this may be the time to talk with someone.
  29. Skip or minimize gifts. After a death, material things can seem less meaningful and shopping can seem especially stressful. Talk as a family and decide if you truly want to exchange gifts this year.
  30. Let go of your perfectionism. If you always have the perfect tree, perfectly wrapped gifts, and the perfect table, accept that this year may not be perfect and it is okay.
  31. Say yes to help. There will be people who want to help and may offer their support. Take them up on their efforts, ask for help. This can be really hard but so important. People really do want to help but not sure how to best go about it. Give specific requests.
  32. Practice self-care, and find some quiet time for yourself.
  33. Prioritize and don’t overcommit. Look at everything you have to do and rank them in order of importance. Plan for the most important and skip the rest.
  34. Remember, it is okay to be happy. This doesn’t diminish how much you love and miss the person who isn’t there this holiday. Don’t feel guilty for the joy you find this holiday season.

About the Author:
Cindy Childers serves as chaplain and discharge planner at Masonic Home Shelbyville. Childers holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and completed the Palliative Care Chaplaincy Program and Advanced Spirituality Practice in Palliative Care by the Healthcare Chaplaincy Network.  She is a long-time employee of the Masonic with 13 years of service.