Holidays are a time of great anxiety during bereavement. But it’s not just the holiday season that puts the griever at risk for emotional turmoil.  Any social situation, event, or random interaction can quickly change a peaceful moment into one of confusion.

If you are aware of the triggers that cause the spontaneous eruption of emotions, you may be better prepared to meet and beat these unexpected moments. These tips can help you prepare for holiday anxiety, but you can easily apply them to any event.

1.            Events—trigger emotions
Most social interactions trigger “beware” emotions. Mentally, we begin to conjure up a multitude of concerns about what could go wrong and how uncomfortable it will be around other people who seem happy. Remember, events of all kinds, can only be avoided for a period of time.   Eventually, you will need to face them, so it’s probably better to do so from the beginning and avoid similar anxiety at the next event.

The easiest way to face an event that you would like to ignore is to find a way to make it special or different. Doing so will alleviate some of the discomfort or sad memories that may surface, because your loved one is not present.

After our son, Chad, died, we were invited to his best friends’ wedding. We anticipated that it would be a very emotional time for us and thought we had self-talked ourselves into a comfortable frame of mind to attend. It wasn’t until we greeted the bride and groom in the reception line, that we fell apart. Their joy in seeing us there caught us unaware and even best-laid plans would have faltered. Sometimes we can’t anticipate the emotions that might overcome us until the exact moment that grief burst overcomes us. When this happens, slip quietly away for a short period of respite. Regain your composure and find a way to “save the day.” When the initial emotion subsides, you will feel relieved and be able to find joy in the event.

2.            Equip yourself for the unexpected.
Be prepared. These two small words carry a mighty lesson. In advance, talk about situations that might cause emotional distress during bereavement.  Such things may include:  insensitive remarks and comments from meaningful relatives or friends. Phrases such as “He’s in a better place” that haunt your sensibilities. Questions that take you by surprise such as “Are you done grieving yet?”

Shortly after Chad died, we decided to take a bus trip thinking we could mindlessly sit back and be entertained without having to think about much. What we didn’t realize is group vacations by bus encourage socialization with people you never met before. We soon discovered that our social conversations with strangers focus around children, family and the weather. And the same questions come up over and over again. We quickly prepared a set of short, simple responses to these inevitable questions. It helped us manage the conversations and still enjoy the trip.

3.           Evaluate—the appropriateness of family traditions
Families create traditions that evolve over many years and define special days in their lives. Whether it’s a birthday, the Fourth of July, or Christmas, it doesn’t mean we can’t change what we do based on the needs of family members and changing generations. Parents become elderly; children go to college or marry; families relocate. Life creates change. Sort out traditions and revitalize family events on a regular basis. Change or drop those that are painful. Compromise and create something new and exciting that speaks to changing demographics of the family. Evaluating the need to continue to do something a certain way can get everyone involved in creating new ideas and flexibility in adapting to life’s natural change.

 4.            Eject-  or dispel the myths of grief.
Bereaved people receive all kinds of advice about what they should do and what they should not do after loss. Most advice is based on the myths of grief or hearsay.  Never make decisions based on someone else’s experience. This loss is your experience, and it’s new to you. You have the right to form our own opinions.

5.            Easy—in other words, simplify
Holidays are a time of overdoing. We accelerate our activities and sabotaged our energy to make the holidays perfect. Take a break. Let someone else coordinate the master plan; and step back and take it easy for once. You can always bake cookies and send cards next year. Do only what is comfortable for you. You’ll find the days can be just as enjoyable. If you feel more relaxed and aren’t stressed by recreating the “perfect” holiday, everyone else will feel the same. Simplify. It could become a new and better way of doing things.

We changed the way we celebrate many of our special days; and found that it has been just as enjoyable. We aren’t tied to overdoing, over-spending, and over emphasizing the importance of “things.” As a family, we connect better with each other by sharing the tasks and finding time to enjoy each other’s presence.

6.            Escape—to the sanctuary you call home.
If grief is new or you are having a difficult time at a particular event, have an escape plan. Face it…some days are just more emotional than others; and sometimes we just need to get away.  In most cases, “home” is your sanctuary.  Most family and friends are sensitive enough to respect your needs for “time alone” or privacy. But you need to be prepared to execute your plan when needed.

Talk to your family or friends about the possibly of “leaving early”, if necessary. Escape by driving your own car—don’t depend upon someone else to leave when you do. As you become more comfortable being around others, these escape clauses become less necessary.

Our family knew our escape “clause” well in advance. We once owned a hobby farm—and we had a dozen built-in excuses for going home!

7.            Eat Crow—if you have to. Your perspectives may change.
During our “tradition” years, we all make statements about things we would never change or do—because it seems unacceptable to family or friends. Bereavement has a way of changing our perspectives in life. It’s okay to “eat crow” and think that maybe it’s time to change how you celebrate. It’s okay to discontinue a time-honored tradition, and it doesn’t require a reason for doing so.

Maybe you couldn’t imagine why anyone would take a vacation during a holiday, but this year a ski trip seems ideal. You think soup and sandwiches for Thanksgiving is inappropriate, but this year meatloaf and mashed potatoes instead of a turkey dinner sounds excellent. Maybe you need to confess that this year, or this family event, you choose not to attend because you made “other” plans. After all, Aunt Patty missed it last year! Eat crow and accept that things change. No one will even notice bits of feathers on your lips.

8.            Eclectic—Mix it up…be unpredictable.
Are you the one who has always been predictable? You’ve done it this way for years. Step out of the box and mix it up a bit. It’s time to change predictable into spontaneous. Serve that meatloaf dinner on paper plates instead of your best china. Exchange gifts on Easter or have a pool party at a water-slide resort instead of the beach. It’s okay to keep some of your traditions, but keep your family and friends guessing by adding something new that gets everyone talking and adaptable to change!

We’ve found some of the most enjoyable times  were around the campfire telling stories. Or throw brats and burgers on the grill-on a moment’s notice and invite the neighbor! It’s fun to pick up a small gift for no occasion at all, just because it “suits” you. Theme parties or game nights are a great way to put business aside and just go for fun. These moments, even during bereavement, pave the road to healing.

9.            Ego—let go of your “ego”  meaning “you” as the center of attention.
Everyone has some kind of hurt that needs special attention. Grief may have made you and your family the focus of all kinds of special needs for a period of time. At work, you’ve probably received special consideration. Family and friends have supported you by listening and helping you in ways that they could. You’ve appreciated it and took it all in, but don’t let your ego—your “all about me” attitude take over your life.

The road to healing grief is long; but only you can really make the kind of choices that will allow you to return to a “new normal” and move on. Living again is about releasing yourself from the hold that grief has on your whole being. It means getting in touch with who you are and what you can become because of your loss. It can be a new beginning and a turning point.

Grieve for as long as you need to, but at some point find the courage to release yourself from all that holds you back. Grief is normal and natural. It’s a part of life and like every other obstacle requires a plan to overcome it.

10.          Exhale-every social event does come to an end.
We all know the feeling of “it’s over” and the release of tension is welcomed. If you keep that thought in mind… that every social encounter will come to an end, you can endure the anxious moments along the way. It’s time to EXHALE and be grateful for loving family and friends who were there for you and were willing to enter into your world of emotion.

If you have negative emotions, try to make peace with them by proper planning, compromise and develop a positive attitude that can get your through the difficult moments. Remember you “own” your feelings and have control over them. It’s up to you to let go and experience the joy that can come with surrender. It’s possible to honor memories and create new ones that can carry you through. You don’t have to pretend to enjoy every moment, but if a pleasant moment or two slip in, find the joy!

“ Let’s enter joyfully into this time that blends the best of yesterday’s memories with our brightest dreams for tomorrow.”

Nan Zastrow

Nan Zastrow

“I always wanted to write,” said Nan Zastrow. “But I never dreamed it would be about death, grief, and mourning. Today I write to heal my pain and teach others that even after a life-changing event, there can be a reason and a purpose to go on living.” On April 16, 1993, Chad Zastrow, the son of Nan and Gary, died as the result of suicide. Ten weeks later, Chad’s fiancée took her life. This double tragedy inspired the Zastrows to create a ministry of hope. They formed a non-profit organization called ©Roots and Wings more commonly called Wings. From 1993—2003, they published the Wings™ magazine, a publication about real situations and real people going through grief that was mailed throughout the United States and Canada. In 2003, their non-profit changed its focus to primarily grief education and support. They publish a free, quarterly newsletter by email to subscribers. Nan and Gary, together, have been keynote speakers at National Bereaved Parents and workshop presenters at various other events. They have been grief group facilitators since 1993, and host workshops and seminars. Each year they host an original theme-based community “When the Holidays Hurt” program for area funeral homes. Nan is the author of four books and over sixty Editor’s Journal Articles in Wings, Grief Digest, and other publications. Their non-profit organization is the recipient of the 2000 Flame of Freedom Award for community volunteerism. Nan was also nominated for the Women of Vision Award in 2001; the Athena Award in 2005, and The HOPE of Wisconsin, hospice volunteer of the year in 2008. Nan and Gary are hospice volunteers and survivors of six sudden deaths of significant people in their lives.

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