How hard it is to be bereaved during the winter holiday season. The demands of the season for cheerfulness, socializing, and giving are intense even for those who are not in the midst of mourning. How is it possible to join in the spirit of these holidays? Your emotional reality is that you are sad, angry, possibly depressed, maybe anxious. Your social reality is that you’ve lost someone who is extremely important to you, possibly the key person in your interpersonal sphere, and basically, you would rather be alone, or maybe with just one person whom you trust.

In terms of giving, well, metaphorically, you’ve just given, i.e. you’ve just taken one of the biggest losses you’ve ever experienced, and you haven’t been able to find any sense of joy in the process. So how to cope, and even find meaning in all of this?

One path to consider, ironically, is the path of giving.

Giving is not the same as losing. Giving can be an expression of love and gratitude, an act of assertive acknowledgement of those around us. Giving can bring fulfillment and help you to remain in touch with yourself. Consider a way in which you can express your gratitude for the relationship you had with the person who has died. Is there a way to make a contribution to one of their favorite charities in their name? Would this involve making a donation, or possibly including others in some way that would allow for the sharing of memories and caring? Or is there a group or person whom you would like to reach out to? There are many opportunities for sharing with and helping others.

If you have a family, choosing to work together to give to a particular group may be a good way to help the family through the holiday season, which is sure to bring with it poignant memories, some painful and some positive, along with a deep sense of missing the person no longer with you. Having the family choose a way of giving which reflects upon the deceased can be particularly meaningful at this time of the year.

Just as giving to others can be meaningful and helpful, giving to oneself is not only meaningful, but is essential to coping with the holidays. Start by assessing how much holiday activity you want to be involved in and identify which activities and traditions you want to do this year. What you do this year might be different from previous years. Discuss this with your family too. Determine what would be meaningful for the family and what might be too painful.

Let others know what you are capable of and not capable of. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or for changes in family traditions that might be hard to manage this year. Express your gratitude for the gift of support and responsiveness to your needs, and assure those who are helping you that their efforts are deeply appreciated.

If your family and friends are not able to offer the support you need, or are actively not supportive, which does happen quite often, try to be understanding, but feel free to make plans which better support yourself. You might want to arrange a special celebration with members of your support group if you have one, or connect with people at your place of worship, or simply choose exactly who you want to be part of your holidays this year.

One family I spoke to when I gave a talk on grief had made plans to go away on a beautiful vacation during the holidays. They felt that this would help them consolidate as a family, heal from their pain, and remove them from too many direct reminders of their loss. They also felt sure that their father/husband would approve of this idea.

Another family created a new tradition and lit candles in honor of the family member who died. Others shared fond memories of their missing family member and passed the tissue box. Some people find it useful to work during the holidays, possibly giving others a chance to take the time off. Another person made a gift to the hospice group that helped her through her husband’s death. Another person began a new tradition for herself of giving a tree trimming party for her friends. This helped her to avoid too much loneliness through the holidays and gave her an opportunity to show her gratitude and appreciation for the support of her friends.

The winter holidays with their traditions of giving can be understood as celebrations of light and the survival of the spirit through dark times. The gifts we give our symbolic of our love, which lights the way through this dark passage. Through this exchange of love we who remain here on earth carry on. Understood in this way, giving may be one of the best and most meaningful ways available to honor the person you have lost and partake of the holiday season.

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Laura Slap-Shelton

Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D. was suddenly widowed at the age of 35 in 1991. She had a wonderful 13 month old daughter and four cats. Being a psychologist, she read all of the materials that her psychologist friends brought her and assumed that she had made it to at least stage 3 of grief during her first week of mourning. She quickly discovered, however, that she was still numb, and began the long and unexpected new journey that has shaped her life. In 1991 not very much was known about young widows and the children of young widows. Finding some support groups and bonding with a widow in similar circumstances as well as reading books by widows became the beginning of her path of healing and discovery. This was furthered by interviewing other young widows for a book (yet to be written), and the realization that her horrible, shocking, painful and life altering loss which at first appeared to set her apart, in fact linked her inextricably to the beauty and depth of human experience. In 2001 Dr. Slap-Shelton wanted to create a means of supporting others in their grief journeys and guiding them toward sharing what they had learned with others. In the process of researching ideas for her website and organization, GriefandRenewal.Com, she began to read about widows in India and Africa. She was fortunate to interview women such as Dr. Mohini V.Giri and Margaret Owen, who were working to help the widows in developing countries whose lot was so much worse than her own. This experience further expanded Dr. Slap-Shelton’s horizons leading her to link the status of widows with the status of women, and realize the ultimate importance of helping widows to find their voice and demand their rights. At this point the work of GriefandRenewal.Com is twofold, involving providing ongoing support and information for the bereaved, and also educating others about widows around the world, raising awareness and funds to help widows in India and Africa. Dr. Slap-Shelton continues her work as a psychologist. She remarried in 2000 and has two stepsons in addition to her daughter, who is about to go to college.

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