Finding Light in the Darkness: Grieving Through The Holidays
by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.
Although it may seem unfair to those of us who have lost a life partner,
child, parent, or close friend, the holiday season has returned. And with
it's return all of the expectations and disappointments that normally
riddle this season with contradictory emotions are exacerbated 1,000 fold
for those of us who suffer a significant loss.
Not only are we expected to gather with family and friends and "be of
good cheer," we are expected to be thankful, generous, and to feel
like celebrating. This can be a tall order, indeed, if we are still deeply
saddened, possibly depressed; if we are still working through feelings of
anger at the world and a sense of injustice; in the death of our loved one
caused rifts in family relationships or in our financial well being; if
other family members are also grieving; or if we are already feeling
isolated and misunderstood by others.
But even for those of us who have perhaps resolved some of these feelings
and issues, the holiday season may be fraught with emotional pain. This is
because our best and worst memories are often generated in the crucible of
holiday celebration. As the holidays come upon us we are both
unconsciously and consciously reminded of our lost loved one. The intense
yearning for this person can be overwhelming at these times. Without
warning, memories of how the person did certain things, what they said,
their likes and dislikes, and their unique and individual contribution to
the celebration come pouring back, leaving in their wake the felt void of
the person's presence.
While all of the above is very likely to be part of the experience of a
bereaved person during the holiday season, it does not have to comprise
the entire experience. The upcoming holidays: Thanksgiving,
Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanza share the common theme of celebrating the
winter months by finding/creating light in the darkness. For the bereaved
finding the light in the darkness can serve as a powerful metaphor for the
healing process. What the light will represent will depend on the
individual: for some it may be a heightened sense of peace and acceptance;
for others it may be finding a balance between sadness and hope for the
future; for some it may mean finding some enjoyment in one or two aspects
of the season and accepting that experience as being enough; for some it
may mean simply surviving the holiday season largely intact, and heaving a
sigh of welcome relief with it's passing. All of these types of light are
fine. Just as there is no one to experience loss there is no one way to
find one's way through the holidays.
A large part of finding the light consists in making friends with and even
managing the darkness. What does this mean? First it means, realizing in
advance that the holidays WILL be different, that there will be feelings
of sadness and loss, as well as memories which may be happy, but poignant.
Even if those around you are not able to drop their expectations that you
will be appropriately "cheerful," you can change your
expectations for yourself. Realistic self expectations will go a long way
in freeing you from an unnecessary sense of having failed to please those around you. This means
not only the expectations of the living, but also those which are so often
projected on to the dead. Even if your lost loved one would have 'wanted
you to be happy' you do not have to be happy. Perhaps happiness will
return in a year or two -- all you have to do now is acknowledge and
accept the feelings that you are having.
In the same vein, you can help family and friends to alter their
expectations of you by releasing them from the responsibility of SEEING to
it that the bereaved person has a good time. This well intentioned, but
inappropriate adopting of responsibility for the bereaved person's
emotional status can lead to an experience of failure if the bereaved
person shows signs of sadness. This sense of failure in turn leads to the
expression of impatience and anger toward the bereaved person. By letting
others know what to expect and making it clear that they are not
responsible for making your holidays happy you may experience greater
harmony and acceptance.
Knowing how much time you feel you want to spend with others and how much
time you want to have to yourself can be invaluable in making plans for
the holidays. Make plans which will give you the balance between private
time and social that feels right. If possible, choose to be with those who
are best able to support you at this time in your life.
Remembering to use your bereavement support system if you have established
one can be very helpful. Often support groups and therapy are suspended
over the holiday season, the very time when they are most needed. Make
plans to stay in touch with one or two support group members over the
season, and know how to contact your therapist in case you are feeling
Making a space to actively remember the lost loved one is also important. You might want to acknowledge your memories privately in a
journal, or a letter to the dead person. A grave side visit or a visit to
your church or synagogue may be helpful. For families and friends it can
be very useful to include a memorial activity in the holiday plans. This
could be as simple as talking about the dead person or could involve
honoring the person in your traditional holiday ceremonies.
Finding a balance between your need for support and other's needs for your
involvement in the activities of the present will also be helpful as you
navigate the holiday social calendar. It is important to remember that the
holidays are difficult for many. You may find that being attentive to the
thoughts and ideas of others will provide you with some relief from your
own sadness, and help you to feel more connected to the present and less
drawn to the past.
Finally, it is often giving that helps to ease the pain of loss. There are
many positive ways of giving which can also allow you to continue your
healing process. And don't forget that it is also OK to give to yourself.
Treat yourself to something special -- it doesn't have to be elaborate or
expensive, it just needs to feel right.
As the time between the loss and the present grows, the holidays generally
become easier to manage. But it is likely that you will find that creating
light in the dark season will be a continued source of comfort and even as
they say, joy, linking you not only to your lost loved one, but to the
very heart of the holiday season.
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