Understanding Grief During the Holidays

If you or someone you know is hurting, consider this advice.

On the surface, the holiday season is all holly and jolly, but many of us are keeping more than gifts under wraps. Grief can be especially pronounced at this time of year if loved ones who used to gather around the table leave an empty space instead. We spoke with Carolyn Richar, chief mission officer at Capital Caring, a provider of hospice, palliative care and counseling services, to learn how to handle either our own grief or that of someone we care about at this time of year.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


The holidays can be stressful even in the best situations, but for someone who has experienced loss, they can be harder to navigate. How can someone who is grieving still embrace the season?

A lot of what happens is very individualized. What we encourage people to do is to see what, in this holiday season, has meaning for them in the midst of grieving. Some traditions you just don’t want to miss no matter what, so how do you incorporate those and then how do you maybe leave behind the things that are too hard this year? Especially if you’ve had the death of a loved one within the past year and this is the first holiday season without the person? What will bring comfort? If it’s comforting to do some of these traditions, if it’s comforting to be in some of these same places, then by all means do them.

And if it’s not?

It’s OK to say no. That’s an important lesson that we like to teach everyone. It’s OK to say, “No, this year I won’t be at the cookie exchange,” or “This year I won’t be at that party. I’m going to take this year off.” For some people, it can even mean going somewhere totally different, just being in a very different setting, at least for this one year. Some people choose to go out of town and not have any of those constant reminders that their loved one isn’t there anymore. Other people will choose to observe many of the traditions in the midst of their grief and to feel comfort in feeling that maybe their loved one is close to them in those traditions. There’s no one right way.

Let’s shift perspectives. If the person who’s grieving is a friend or loved one, how can you reach out?

The best thing you can do is just be there. There are no words that you can say that will necessarily help. Don’t worry about saying anything to them. Just say, “I’m here. Can I just sit with you? Can I just be with you?” and then let them lead the conversation. People are uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or to do and so they think, “Let me give them something I think will comfort them,” and what they’re really doing is trying to comfort themselves. Don’t direct. Don’t try to fix. Just be there. Listen. If they’re crying, let them cry, and it’s OK if you have some tears too. That just shows that person that you get it.

What does all this look like if the grieving person is a child?

Whatever stage of life they’re at is going to let you know a bit more about what to expect about how they grieve. [For youngsters,] things aren’t permanent for them yet, so they won’t really get that this loved one is not coming back. They will continue to ask, “When is Grandma coming back? When will I see Grandpa again?” They will keep doing that until they reach that next stage of development where they realize this is permanent. From 3 up through 9/10ish, they don’t get embarrassed yet and they don’t have the same filters we adults tend to put on, so they ask really blunt questions: “What’s going to happen to Grandma’s body?” You’re going to have to explain it over and over. The other part of it is children grieve in bits and pieces. If they’re playing, let them play. Let them have those happy moments, and then when they’re crying, that’s OK, too. You don’t really get over grief. It’s a part of your life forever.

Capital Caring offers free grief support services in the community. Call 1-800-869-2136 for more information.


 

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