As we approach the holiday season, many of us are looking forward to spending time with family and friends, celebrations, traditions and expectations of things to come. Throughout our lives, expectations of things to come are based on past experiences.
This article is not for those looking forward to the holiday season, but for those who are dreading this time of the year. This article is for those of us who have experienced a significant loss of a loved one, of a relationship through death, through divorce, through any change in our lives that now requires us to live through the stages of grieving, the mourning process and the beginning of the healing process.
How do we get through the holidays after a significant loss, a significant change in our lives? For sure the first holiday season is gut-wrenching, our emotions are raw and all we may want is to have everything go away. It is important to honor what we are feeling; feelings are neither good or bad, they just are. As we honor what we are feeling, what really helps is educating ourselves about the grieving/mourning and healing process.
If we are to heal from our losses, two distinct processes must occur. The first is the mourning process, grieving through the stages of loss which include: shock and denial, bargaining, withdrawal, depression, guilt, relief, anger and finally acceptance. The mourning process is a feeling process. A willingness to feel and live through these emotions is how we begin. The second process is action. How and what do we do to survive and go on with life? Though these are two distinct processes (feeling and action), depending on the individual and the significance of the loss, they can dovetail and occur simultaneously. The intensity of the process is directly related to the significance of our loss. Healing is unique to each individual and there is no timeframe that will assure that we’ve completed these processes.
Now that we addressed the grieving/mourning and healing processes, let’s focus on healing tools to help us navigate through this holiday season. HEALING TOOLS include AN ACTION PLAN and GUIDELINES.
AN ACTION PLAN is a list of every activity and tradition that you associate with the Holidays. Create a checklist and then decide: I can’t do this, maybe next year; I can do this, but need to scale it back; I want to try and will do the best I can moment by moment. And at any time, I can change my mind about doing any activity.
A CHECK LIST could include:
- Sending Holiday Cards
- Decorating the House
- Going to Holiday Parties
- Visiting Family and Friends
- Shopping for Gifts
- Maintaining Traditions (e.g. Christmas Day or Eve)
- Anything else…..
- Face the Holidays In Your Own Way and In Your Own Time
Take one step at a time by focusing on what feels right for you regardless of what anyone else says or implies.
- Watch for Emotional Ambushes (Breathe, Pause, Stop, It will Pass)
These include anything that catches you offguard and creates intense emotion, e.g. opening a Christmas box of decorations and immediately seeing the last Christmas card your husband (who died) gave you.
- Be with People who will Support You and Understand Your Pain
There are some losses in life that we cannot understand or feel until we experience that loss, e.g. the death of a child. The people who will understand and feel your pain are those who have experienced a similar loss.
- Be Clear in Expressing Your Needs
Often people in our lives simply do not know how to deal with us after our loss. Innocently they may say or doing things that at the opposite of what we need. As we recognize what we need, express that need. If we can’t verbalize it, write it down and send note or email.
- Begin New Traditions
Because of our loss, our life has changed. We resist change because it is so difficult. New Traditions can create a bridge from the life we lived before our loss to our life going forward.
After the holidays, there are action steps that I encourage you to explore to continue the mourning and healing process. These action steps include: Bereavement classes, Support groups (e.g. Compassionate Friends); On-Line resources (e.g. Open to Hope); Counseling (individual and family); and Workshops & Retreats.
This holiday season, it will be 29 years since my son died and 11 years since my husband died. Both Michael and Gary died suddenly and unexpectedly. Their deaths shattered me and changed my life. The guidelines and plan that I shared with you in this article has helped me and my clients navigate not only through our first holiday seasons but those that followed. It is my hope that some of what I shared will assist you. Take care, be gentle with yourself and know you will survive.
Elizabeth Horwin is a Licensed Professional Counselor offering workshops, seminars and retreats to individuals, organizations and employers assisting them in dealing with and healing from life’s losses. She is a bereaved parent and spouse and the author of, Love Never Dies.
Hi Elizabeth! Thank you for sharing your suggestions, which I think are very useful ~ I do wish, however, that you would reconsider your statement that “If we are to heal from our losses, two distinct processes must occur. The first is the mourning process, grieving through the stages of loss which include: shock and denial, bargaining, withdrawal, depression, guilt, relief, anger and finally acceptance.” I worry that such statements, especially when they come from professionals in our field, only serve to perpetuate the myth that grief unfolds in stages. Apart from the fact that there is no compelling, verifiable evidence that so-called “stages” exist among grieving people, I think we owe it to both our readers and our clients to base our writing and our current practice on all that we’ve learned about grief in the forty years since the 1969 publication of “On Death and Dying.”