Family and togetherness are key themes for the holidays. That can make the holidays awfully difficult for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. My father passed away a month before the holidays. We still shared presents, ate large meals, visited with friends, even sang carols—but it was all pretty subdued.
“If the grief is fresh, holiday cheer can seem like an affront. Celebrations may underscore how alone people feel,” notes my colleague Dr. Michael Miller in the December issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. This special theme issue focuses on grief and loss.
Although grief is nearly universal, it expresses itself in many different ways, and sometimes resembles major depression. Frequent crying spells, depressed mood, sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite are common during the bereavement process.
Grief is not a tidy, orderly process, and there is no right way to grieve. Every person—and every family—does it differently. This can cause emotions to collide and overlap, especially during the holiday season when the emphasis is on rebirth and renewal.
Here are the strategies recommended in the Harvard Mental Health Letter that may help you or someone you know who is grieving cope with the holidays:
Start a new tradition. During a holiday dinner, place a lighted candle on the dinner table, leave an empty chair, or say a few words of remembrance.
Change the celebration. Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal at home. Or schedule a trip with friends.
Express your needs. People who are grieving may find it hard to participate in all the festivities or may need to let go of unsatisfying traditions. It’s all right to tell people you just aren’t up to it right now or to change plans at the last minute. I remember that my sister did not join in singing carols, the holidays after our father died.
Help someone else. It may also help to volunteer through a charitable or religious organization. Make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the person who died. In retrospect, I wish I had done this during that sad holiday.
Give yourself time. The grieving process doesn’t neatly conclude at the six-month or one-year mark. Depending on the strength of the bond that was broken, grief can be life-long. Nevertheless, grief does usually soften and change over time. With time, the holidays will become easier to handle.
The Harvard Mental Health Letter, written for mental health professionals and all interested readers, presents the latest thinking about how to promote a sense of well-being, and to understand, prevent, and treat mental distress.