We all experience grief at various points in our life.
But dealing with a loss can be particularly difficult during the holiday season.
It’s a time when days are colder, darker and bleaker – and we’re meant to be cheering ourselves up with festive, family rituals.
You can never predict your reaction to losing a loved-one, even when you knew it was coming. Your fluctuating emotions can seem nonsensical, and that in itself can feel unnerving.
But there are ways to feel grounded and secure, and to find some solace during this period.
Speaking to DailyMail.com, two grief therapists offer some techniques to get through the next few weeks.
Holidays can be even more painful when you’re grieving
1. GIVE YOURSELF SOME SLACK
‘The nature of human existence is that people get attached and when our attachments are severed, we hurt, we grieve,’ R Benyamin Cirlan, a grief psychotherapist at New York City’s Center for Loss and Renewal, told DailyMail.com.
‘It’s true in the animal world as well. To be grieving is a natural response.’
You can’t put a time limit on it, but Cirlan says in general up to six months of intense grief would not be unsurprising.
Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief counselor who authored the book Anxiety: The Missing Stage Of Grief, agrees.
‘One of the first things to think about is to recognize that it’s difficult,’ she told DailyMail.com.
‘Some people resist, they think that they should be getting through it easily and it’s going to be ok, but that’s not always the case.
‘Holidays bring up so many memories, all the movies and commercials and this sense of it all make you feel like we’re meant to be having this perfect family experience. But something’s missing. You feel like everyone around you is having this perfect experience and you’re not. That’s ok.’
2. IT MAY NOT GO AS YOU EXPECTED
‘There’s a wide range of responses,’ Cirlan explains.
‘There’s not one single path of grief, and in fact in our society there’s an idea that the grieving process is a stage-specific process.
‘It’s not, and you can’t expect that of yourself.’
This stage-specific idea came from Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, who published her theory of ‘the stages of grief’ in 1969 in her seminal book On Death & Dying.
It was a groundbreaking book, mainly because it suggested that we should be open about grief, rather than sweeping it under the carpet.
She said we should recognize each moment of grief, and dedicate time to dealing with that pain.
According to Kubler-Ross, after we lose a loved-one, we experience (in order): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
It was controversial then, and is controversial now, but for different reasons.
These days, the biggest gripe is that it is so rigid. Most disagree with the idea that grief could be at all logical.
‘Kubler-Ross was a very important figure in helping people to discuss death and dying,’ Cirlan said. ‘But no one grieves in an orderly manner. That just doesn’t happen, there’s a wide range of grieving responses.’
Instead, Cirlan points to Thomas Attig, an American philosopher, counselor and author, who challenged this rigid format with his 1996 book How We Grieve: Relearning The World.
‘Thomas Attig talks about the process of relearning, and I found that a likely issue for most of the people who come to see me,’ Cirlan said.
Grieving, Attig said, is an active process. Some may not display obvious symptoms of grief. Some may feel immediate depression, thereby jumping straight to stage four of Kubler-Ross’s playbook. Some may start with acceptance (stage five) before later anger (stage two). Some may experience layers of different sensations that could not be condensed into one diagnosis.
‘It’s about renegotiating your relationship with yourself without that person,’ Cirlan said.
3. YOU COULD HONOR THE TRADITIONS OF THE PERSON YOU LOST
‘Some people feel like they need to embrace it more than ever, to recreate their loved-one’s traditions and talk about them,’ Bidwell Smith said.
She’s speaking from experience. Bidwell Smith had already been counseling patients through grief for years when her own mother died, and she had to work out how to apply her own advice to herself.
‘After my mother died, I found I had to embrace the holidays. She loved the holidays, she loved Christmas. So every year, coping with it for me, looked like embracing it more, getting out the things she loved.’
4. YOU COULD SKIP THE HOLIDAYS THIS YEAR
‘For some people it’s too painful so they skip it,’ Bidwell Smith said.
You could go to the Caribbean, or a yoga retreat, or drive across the country.
You could even stay at home, but skip the rituals.
‘You could just decide you’re not going to try to make it this big perfect thing, you’re not going to put up all the decorations this year, it’s too much and too painful.’
5. DO SOMETHING CHARITABLE
Wherever you’re spending the holidays, doing something charitable can help you feel a sense of meaning.
‘Loss is, for many people, a crisis of meaning,’ Cirlan explains.
‘The people we attach to give our lives meaning. Nobody has a 100 percent positive relationship but those relationships give us a sense of meaning.’
It takes time to reconstruct that sense of meaning, to reflect on who you are now, and how the person you lost gave you meaning.
Bidwell Smith says taking action in a roundabout way can give you a feeling of agency and goodwill that helps you on that journey.
‘I think one thing that’s really great to do is do something meaningful, like donate or volunteer, or collect presents for under-served families, or make a cash donation in the name of your loved-one,’ she suggests.
‘It can make you feel better about your meaningfulness in the world.’
6. DECIDE WHETHER YOU WANT TO DISCUSS YOUR LOVED-ONE OR NOT
Make a decision about how to talk about them, Bidwell Smith says.
‘Some people aren’t ready to go there, so prep your family. Just tell them: “I don’t want to talk about it this year, I just want to get through the holidays”.
‘On the flip side, if you really want to talk about them, there are ways to do that.’
You could share pictures of them, get close friends to share stories about them, make a meal that they loved, and memorialize them in that way.
7. DON’T CLOSE YOURSELF OFF
Loss feels lonely, but even moreso if you shut off contact with everyone.
Both Cirlan and Bidwell Smith say contact with other relatives, close friends, colleagues, or even new acquaintances can help more than you realize.
For those who don’t feel they have anyone to turn to, Bidwell Smith recommends looking for a support group – of which there are plenty, particularly at this time of year.
‘There are more support groups now than ever before, and they are particularly prevalent during the holiday season,’ Bidwell Smith, who also runs an online grief course, says.
‘There are one-day workshops for people who are grieving, or even online communities.’
8. REMEMBER THAT THIS IS NOT FOREVER AND YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Grief is like a bruise, Cirlan says.
‘Imagine that you receive a blow. A board falls onto your arm. Initially black and blue mark. That’s the acute symptoms of grief, perhaps with pain, perhaps anger,’ he says.
‘In time, that may slowly disappear. For some time there might be soreness.
‘Acute symptoms slowly morph from acute towards melancholy, accepting that their loved-one died and their life has changed.’
Some things can exacerbate the soreness, but it does fade over time.
Bidwell Smith said: ‘Remember that you’re not alone. There are so many people who are grieving. It can feel very lonely but there are always people around you who have been through that.’
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