Like many others, my holidays are tinged with sad memories. When I was 13, my beloved grandmother who lived with us died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks before my birthday, which happens to fall on December 26. That year, both my birthday and the holiday were touched with sadness and loss. When I was 28, my brother died in a tragic accident. The last time I saw him was over the Christmas holiday. Eight years ago, my mother had a heart attack during our yearly holiday gathering that ultimately brought her to the end of her life two months later.
These personal losses are not so unusual. I’m a member of a very large club of adults who have experienced loss near the winter holiday period.
Mary’s husband Sam died last summer. They were married for 45 years, and it’s an enormous loss for her and her family. While her family has always enjoyed Christmas, this will be the first one without Sam. It’s hard for Mary not to think about his empty seat at the head of their long table.
The first holiday after a loss, whether expected or unexpected, is a big adjustment for families. The holiday highlights the loss of a loved one. It can trigger a wave of grief and sadness that we wish didn’t accompany a normally cheerful and happy time.
So how can we cope with holiday related grief?
Grieving is a natural part of life. We will all experience loss in our lifetime. Grieving these losses is natural and healthy. People often believe that grief lasts a year, but in actuality, we never stop missing loved ones. Indeed, we may miss them even more as time passes by, much like missing an old friend that we haven’t seen for years.
Grief comes in waves. Even though my brother passed away more than 35 years ago, I can still experience a wave of intense sorrow. Sometimes I’m unsure of what triggered these intense emotions. Watching a movie, reading a news article or his birthday may set off a small or large wave of sadness. It’s generally brief, but still strong.
Acknowledge your feelings. Sometimes family members anticipating their “first” holiday without their loved one try to sweep their sad feelings under the rug. They try not to talk about their family member, despite the fact that everyone is thinking of him or her. Better to take some time to express these feelings. Recalling memories can be healing and healthy too.
Nurture healthy coping skills. Finding a way to express your feelings is helpful. Soothe yourself with hot baths, massage, flowers, exercise and quiet time. I focus on practicing meditation and Tai Chi when I feel sad—not as way to avoid my feelings, but as a way to experience them and transform them into something else. Avoid use of alcohol or drugs as a way of escaping sadness during the holiday season. Overeating, especially sugary foods, can be an unhealthy way of coping with sadness, too.
The holidays can be sweet and sad. This Thanksgiving, Mary shed some tears over Sam’s absence. But she also felt love and support from her family that was present. She was able to experience both emotions. When we can acknowledge and accept our sad feelings, we are more likely to be able to experience love and joy.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.