6 tips to deal with extreme grief at holidays

Friday, December 21, 2012
[PHOTO: Sara Biljana/Flickr/CC BY 2.0] 
New York: Most people agree: There's an undercurrent of sadness to the holidays. We've all experienced losses, and residual grief tends to resurface when the garland goes up, the menorah is lit, and we notice grandma's empty chair. But what if you're suffering a fresh, profound loss? What if a spouse, a best friend, or—God forbid—a child has died during the past year?

"While it's hard to quantify grief, to say 'my loss trumps your loss,' we all know there are losses that sadden and there are losses that devastate," says Arleah Shechtman, author of the new book My Beloved Child : My journey since the death of my daughter. "And the first Christmas or Hanukkah after a devastating loss—really any 'first' without the loved one—can be almost unbearably painful."

Shechtman—whose book traces her grief journey since her daughter's death 35 years ago—says the holidays create idealized expectations that can't possibly be met. For those experiencing extreme grief, the holidays aren't just a letdown; they're a painful reminder of what you no longer have.

"I remember being so angry that first Christmas because everyone was laughing and sharing and I had to visit my child at the cemetery," she says.

So how can those suffering from extreme grief survive the holidays? Shechtman offers a few tips:

Break down when you need to break down. (Yes, even in the middle of the office Christmas party.) Grief doesn't always arrive at convenient times, but it shouldn't be squelched. Find a bathroom or go outside, but cry and scream if you have to. 

"Never fake it," advises Shechtman. "Never soldier through it. Only by 'riding the waves' of grief, even when it makes others uncomfortable, can you ever begin to heal."

If you feel like going to the holiday event, go. If you don't, don't. "Grief ebbs and flows, and often after a period of intense crying you will feel okay for a while," says Shechtman. "If you're in an 'ebb' and think you might enjoy a candlelight service, then go. Take grief as it comes."

Forget seasonal "obligations." Take care of yourself first. "If you just can't show up for a holiday dinner, it's okay," says Shechtman. "If you can't face shopping for your grandchildren, don't. They have too much stuff anyway! Those who care about you will understand."

When you need to, call someone on your "List of 10." Historically, extreme loss was handled in the context of family, friends, church, and community. In our current culture, families are scattered and fragmented, and communities and churches have been devalued. That's why Shechtman suggests cobbling together a list of 10 people you trust who agree to be there when you need them—even at 2 a.m.

"After Sharon died I would call the people on my list, one by one, to see if they were up to my grief at the moment," she says. "Grief requires comfort, a hard thing to keep asking for."

Find a way to honor your lost loved one during the holidays. Hang a stocking for her.  Prepare his favorite meal. Do something meaningful to bring the person's presence into the holidays.

"These rituals help you process the loss rather than trying to squelch or deny it," says Shechtman.

Do something that brings you pleasure or comfort (even if it isn't holiday-related). Go for a snowy hike, visit a spa, or pet cats at the local animal shelter. The fact that you're grieving doesn't mean you can't enjoy life.

"This last point is the hardest to believe, but it's true," notes Shechtman. "You'll think, I'll never be happy again. You will. Maybe not this Christmas or Hanukkah. Maybe not next year. But eventually, you will.

"Making the choice to grieve—and it's one you must make again and again for the rest of your life—expands your capacity for joy and brings new richness to relationships," she adds. "If nothing else sustains you this holiday season, hold on to this. Life will never be the same, but it will be good again."
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