Holiday cheer and merrymaking may be everywhere at certain times of the year, but for thousands of Americans grieving the loss of a loved one, the holiday season can be an emotional minefield. And there’s no road map for easy navigation.
“The holiday season can be particularly challenging for families who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one,” said Bonnie Carroll, the founder and chairman of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS. “We offer tips to help surviving military families, and they are applicable to anyone who is grieving.”
For more than a decade, TAPS has helped surviving families of those who have died in military service. Carroll and TAPS offer the following tips to help anyone who is grieving during the holiday season.
Take charge of your holiday season. Anticipating the holiday, especially if it’s the first one without a cherished family member, can be worse than the actual holiday. Taking charge of your holiday plans, and mapping out how you will spend that time, can help relieve anxiety.
Make plans. Plan to spend the holidays where you feel nurtured, emotionally safe, and comfortable. An escape plan may be difficult to carry out, because American holidays are celebrated in many places world-wide, and there often is no way to escape all of the reminders of the holidays.
Find sustenance for the soul. Your church, synagogue, mosque, or other faith community may offer services, resources, and support networks to help. You may want to look for a support group for people who are grieving and have suffered a similar loss. Families who have lost a loved one serving in the military may find comfort by connecting with other survivors through our online community, online peer support groups, or care groups.
Don’t be afraid to change your holiday traditions. Some traditions may be a comfort, while others might cause pain. Consider which traditions to keep, and which ones to forego this year. Do not feel like you have to do something because you have always done it that way.
Include your lost loved one in gift-giving. Consider making a donation to a charity in memory of your loved one. Give a gift on behalf of your loved one to someone else.
Create a tribute. Light a candle, display a favorite photograph, or set a place at the dinner table to represent the missing loved one. Consider writing a letter to your loved one about the holidays and your special memories with that person.
Be gentle with yourself. Realize that familiar traditions, sights, smells, and even tastes, may be comforting, or may jolt your emotions. This is the time of year when you need to be careful with your emotions and listen to yourself.
Attend holiday functions if you can. Consider attending holiday parties and events, especially if you’ll be able to spend time with supportive family members and friends. Make an escape plan in case the event is more than you can handle, and trust your hosts to understand if you need to slip out. If you think a holiday gathering might be more than you can handle, it is ok to stay home.
Don’t pretend you haven’t experienced a loss. Imagining that nothing has happened does not make the pain of losing a loved one go away, nor does it make the holidays easier to endure. Even though holiday memories may be painful, they can also be comforting. It is ok to talk with others about what you have lost, and what the holidays mean to you.
Pay attention to your health. It’s often difficult for people who have experienced a recent loss to sleep. Make sure you get regular rest and drink lots of water. Do not over-indulge in sweets or alcohol. If you feel overwhelmed, talk with your medical care provider.
Take stock of both joy and sadness. Give yourself permission to feel joy as well as sadness. Don’t feel like you have to “be a certain way” because of your loss. Just be yourself.
Express your feelings. Bottling up your feelings may add to distress, not lessen it. To express your feelings, use your creativity to write a poem, talk with a supportive friend, create a painting, or pen a journal entry.
Share your holiday season with someone else. There are many lonely people who might like to experience the holiday season with someone else. Consider volunteering with a local charity or soup kitchen, inviting a neighbor for a special holiday meal, or including others in your holiday activities.
For more tips on dealing with grief during the holidays, go to the TAPS website at www.taps.org.
TAPS is the national organization providing compassionate care for the families of America’s fallen military heroes. TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, seminars for adults, Good Grief Camps for children, case work assistance, and 24/7 crisis intervention care for all who have been affected by the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. Services are provided free of charge. For more information go to www.taps.org or call the toll-free crisis line at 800.959.TAPS.