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In Brief: Handling holidays and difficult times

DEC 2011

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You can get instant online access to all of the articles from the December 2011 issue of Harvard Mental Health Letter for only $5.

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Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and events that would otherwise be joyful can be especially hard on people who are grieving. If the grief is fresh, holiday cheer can seem like an affront. Celebrations may underscore how alone people feel. Likewise, it's hard to accept that others may not mark the days that you do — the first time you met your loved one, a birthday, or the anniversary of an illness or death. The following strategies may help people ease pain around holidays and other difficult times.

Start a new tradition. People can remember the deceased on special occasions by placing a lighted candle on the table, leaving an empty chair, or saying a few words of remembrance. If the person who died always played a special role in festivities, another family member may be able to carry on the tradition.

Change the celebration. Sometimes people opt for a simpler celebration. They go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal at home. Or they schedule a trip or an outing with family members or friends.

Ask for advice. It may help some people to talk to others who have lost people close to them to find out how they have managed holidays.

Express personal needs. People who are grieving may find it hard to participate in all the festivities or may need to let go of overwhelming or unsatisfying traditions. It's all right to tell people you're just not up to it right now or to change plans at the last minute. Don't feel pressured to do more than you want to do. Leave an event when you wish to go.

Plan to mark the day. Others find it helpful to make special plans for an anniversary, birthday, or other special day. This can include walking through a nature preserve, visiting the cemetery or the place where ashes were scattered, or enjoying an activity the deceased would also have loved. Think of a ritual to help you connect. Light a candle and say a prayer. Release balloons. Carry a memento from your loved one.

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.