Walking with Grief Through the Holidays

“When we are already experiencing the great stress of bereavement, the additional strains of the holidays can create unbearable pressure,”

–Jack Gordon, Hospice Foundation of America President.

The holidays are a challenging time for people who are grieving. Perhaps you or someone you know is dreading the holidays and not quite sure how to cope during this time of year. Some suggestions for coping with the holidays:

Recognize that holidays won’t be the same and plan to make choices that are the right ones for you.

Hospice foundation of America, Kenneth Doka, Ph D. and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America encourages people to trust what they need and be comfortable with the choices they make during the holidays. Doka shares from his group experience with widows and widowers: “One woman, whose husband recently died asked, ‘Who should sit at the head of the table?’ taking her husband’s place. I asked the group how they had handled it. One woman placed her youngest grandchild there to remind the family of its continuity. Another said her eldest son sat there. Another woman said that she sat there since she was now the family leader.”

Which response was right? “They all were” said Doka. “Each response met the needs of the person, and each was a comfortable choice.”

Talk about what you need with your family and friends. It is normal to feel more intense grief at this time of the year when the emphasis is on celebration. Make a plan for what you need to do for the holidays and talk about it with friends and family. Make space in your holiday for your grief. It will come up at times often unexpected. This is normal. Ask for support from family and friends—and talk to them about your feelings.

Avoid alcohol and other drugs. Exercise! Try to get at least some moderate exercise which helps with energy and mood. You might consider taking a walk with a friend. Remember, nature is a healing balm for grief and exercise, though difficult sometimes to begin, helps natural endorphins in the body to circulate and stabilize our moods.

Avoid additional stress and get plenty of rest.

Decide what you really want to do, and what can be avoided. Perhaps cards don’t need to be sent, or shopping can be done by phone or catalog. Remind yourself that it’s okay to do something completely different this year for the holidays if that would be what you might need.

Draw upon your religious or spiritual practices Some people become much more introspective at this time of year, especially during times of grief. It is naturally a time to go inward and to reflect on one’s life and the meaning and purpose you are experiencing—or not experiencing. Especially if you have lost a loved one, you might want to reflect on what the holidays meant for them, and what they might say to you in comfort about how to get through this time. We know so well our loved one who died—we might find comfort in imagining what words of comfort they might say to us at this darkest time of year. For some, this is a way of recognizing the holidays as “holy days”.

Many people say they receive support from belonging to a spiritual or religious community. Support and comfort are also accessed through various spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, yoga, reading sacred scripture, and attending religious or spiritual services. There are many simple rituals, such as lighting a candle in honor of a deceased loved one, that can help support us during these dark days of winter.

Excerpt from the novel Hanna Coulter:

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has not power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

-Distributed by UW Medicine/Northwest Hospital & Medical Center Spiritual Care Office