The holidays are fast approaching, and wherever you find yourself, there are reminders to be merry because the season of joy is upon us. However, if you find yourself in a state of grief, then instead of embracing this time, you might be looking for an escape route. In fact, just thinking about these events can create a sense of panic, and suddenly you find a lump in your throat and tears welling up in your eyes.
Here are 10 things that you can do to cope with grief and loss during the holidays:
1. Utilize your 'pass' card. In November of 2007, my husband died nearly eight weeks after being diagnosed with advanced adrenal cancer. Within two weeks of his funeral came Thanksgiving, and I was very sick. I was actually on a heavy dose of antibiotics and thought this alone would get me out of the festivities, but the invites persisted. When I finally made it to the med clinic, the doctor who treated me handed me the discharge paperwork and said, "This is your pass." Meaning I could use my doctor's visit as a "pass" for getting out of attending holiday related activities. Unfortunately, I was in a major fog, not only from the bronchitis, double ear infections but also from the grief. Instead, I attended every event and felt worse. I'm not suggesting that you go to your doctor and get a physical pass, but if you have experienced the death of someone near and dear to you, it is okay to use your 'pass' card and sit this out this round of activities.
2. Have an exit strategy. If you do decide that you want to attend a holiday party, be sure to create a plan of how you can leave if things become too overwhelming for you. This may mean that you drive separately, or you confide in a close friend that you want to test the waters, so to speak, but you are not sure how you are able to handle things, so you may ask that person if it is okay to leave early with you.
3. Stop apologizing. You don't have to feel guilty about your grief. The holidays can bring up very difficult memories and this should not create a feeling of shame. You are deeply missing your loved one, and you are emotionally fragile. Each time you apologize, you are basically sending yourself a message that you are doing something wrong.
4. Stay off social media. Viewing social media platforms and looking at photographs of others who are engaging in holiday festivities is a gateway into an unsupervised emotional land mine. This is what you will see: You will be looking at people you know and love at parties that you were not invited to, and then you will stumble upon an insensitive comment about you or your loved one. In addition, you will see others paying tribute to your late mother, sister, child, husband, and these are people who did not offer one once of support to you during your crisis. This will infuriate you, and then you will spend the next days, weeks even thinking about this. It will aggravate your grief and break you open.
5. Do something different. Many families have holiday traditions and not having your loved one here creates a dark void. The empty space that is left by this death will not go unnoticed by you, and trying to do things the same as last year will make the space seem even more prominent. Doing something different does not take away your grief, but it can soften the edge. For example, don't send out holiday cards if even thinking of having to sign your name without your family member just crushes you.
6. Stay away from major shopping plazas. Malls and retail stores have created a holiday-palooza that is difficult to escape. Everywhere you look, you will see something telling you to be cherry and bright. Then before you can get out of this emotional entrapment, you will hear your name being called, and next thing you know you will find yourself engaging in a conversation with someone you would rather have dodged. And as your luck will have it, they will say something insensitive, and it will send you reeling with uncontrollable emotions. If you have to purchase a gift, you can ask a friend to buy things for you, or even go online to avoid having to interact with others or just exempt yourself from this frenzy. There is nothing wrong with not buying gifts.
7. Give yourself some credit. You survived the unimaginable, and you have no idea how you are functioning but somehow you are still here. Beating yourself up with lists of what you think you need to do is cruel. You are braver and stronger than you know.
8. Create your own sanity pack. For some, this may be literal, it can be a bag filled with your favorite DVD, books, music, magazines or chocolate. For others, it may be scheduling a yoga class at a certain time when you know a party is ongoing. In other words, you have tangible items that bring you comfort, and you can open your 'sanity pack' after returning home from a stressful meeting or unwelcome encounter. These are things to create a distraction, and sometimes these are the things that will get you through the very rough moments.
9. Seek professional help. You may need to see your doctor if you are experiencing the physical symptoms that grief can create. Here is a link to broken heart syndrome as defined by the Mayo Clinic. You also may need to go to a licensed therapist or enter a support group. This is not a sign or weakness. Be honest with the professional and explain that the pain is unbearable, and if you are feeling suicidal you need to immediately tell them. Professionals do not presume that you are feeling this way. If you are suicidal, you need to call 911.
10. Change your mind. You have the right to change your mind. While it may have appeared to be a great idea to attend that event three weeks ago, now that the day is here, it is filled with anxiety. If things are too overwhelming then it is okay to change your mind. It is better to take care of yourself than to worry about being present for a party. And believe it or not, the event will continue without you.
The next few weeks are filled with endless reminders of the holidays, but you can choose to remove yourself from part of the fray. Maintaining your sanity is far more important than trying to impress anyone with your put-together presence or perfect gift. There is no timeline for grief, so be gentle with yourself and do not be afraid to do something different.
If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
Kristin Meekhof is a licensed masters level social worker and author of the book - A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice For The First 5 Years.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.