Finding healthy ways to cope with grief and loss is difficult at any time during the year; however, it can be particularly challenging during the holidays – when there are often reminders all around of the loss of a loved one. It may be an empty chair at the table where dad always sat, maybe that Mom’s “Best Apple Pie Ever” is missing from the family meal, or perhaps putting up the Christmas tree seems different without Grandpa there to put the star on top.
Melissa Sweet, LPC, Bereavement Program Coordinator, MyMichigan Home Care.
“During a time when we naturally reminisce and we think about the past – the year that we forgot to thaw the turkey and other memories – it becomes more prevalent in our mind that our loved one isn't here and that can be really hard to deal with,” says Melissa Sweet, LPC, Bereavement Program Coordinator, MyMichigan Home Care.
Adding to that difficulty is the world’s expectation of joy during this season.
“Most people who aren't grieving see the holidays as something that's very exciting,” says Meghan Dahl, LMSW, Supervisor of Outpatient Psychiatry, MyMichigan Physicians Group, and Supervisor of the Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program, MyMichigan Medical Center Midland. “It comes with a lot of happy memories, and there is almost an expectation of cheerfulness.”
However, a recent survey
found that 36% of Americans say they don’t feel like celebrating the holidays due to a sense of grief and loss; furthermore, 70% of Americans don’t know what to say or do when someone is grieving.
As the holiday season continues, Sweet and Dahl offer some words of encouragement to help those coping with grief and loss through this time, as well as advice for the family and friends of those struggling so they can support their loved one.
Finding peace when you can’t find joy
Managing expectations for yourself and allowing yourself time are important when you are struggling with grief and loss.
Meghan Dahl, LMSW, Supervisor of Outpatient Psychiatry, MyMichigan Physicians Group, and Supervisor of the Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program, MyMichigan Medical Center Midland
“A lot of times we come with internal expectations about how things are supposed to go or what we should be doing. I hear a lot of ‘should,’” says Dahl. “Sometimes we need to treat ourselves with some compassion and say, ‘This is going to look different and that's okay.’”
She adds that removing something that adds stress to your mental load or seems too much to handle when you’re already struggling is okay. This may mean not throwing a large holiday party like you’ve done in past years or not baking all of the cookies that you normally do.
“If you are a parent struggling with grief and the Elf on the Shelf does not come out this year, then so be it - he took a vacation. It's okay to make these adjustments for yourself and to allow yourself to have emotions,” Dahl says.
She says it’s important to remember that grief can look different from person to person, even within the same family; and, if you need help through your grief, it is ok to seek that out – there’s no shame in doing so.
MyMichigan Health offers a variety of services for those grieving
, including bereavement support, in-person and virtual support groups, counseling services, and Partial Hospitalization Programs for those who need more intense help as they cope with their grief.
Sweet says the bereavement program is open to all community members and is free of charge. Additionally, MyMichigan Health offers support mailing, which sends out a collection of newsletters and articles on topics that pertain to grief and loss.
36% of Americans say they don’t feel like celebrating the holidays due to a sense of grief and loss.
“Some people don't feel like they want to see someone one-on-one, but they like the idea of having that education sent to them so they can read about topics that pertain to them,” says Sweet. “There are topics such as common reactions to grief and understanding grief.”
Dahl adds that MyMichigan Health does have inpatient mental health for patients who are at risk of harming themselves or others, and if someone is having those thoughts she encourages them to seek emergency help.
“It's okay if the holiday looks different. It’s going to look different because someone is missing, but just understanding that we can do things differently can help us,” says Sweet. “I always try to encourage people to just aim for peace sometimes rather than holiday joy. People are always talking about joy around the holidays and it's okay to focus on peace.”
Showing love when others can’t find joy
Just as managing expectations is important for those struggling with grief, it’s important for the friends and family of those struggling as well.
“There are a lot of expectations that we have in our families and our social circles of getting together, gift exchanges, cookie exchanges, and meals. For someone who is grieving, that can be overwhelming and they might not want to do those things,” says Dahl. “So, it’s important to come at that with some compassion and recognize that a lot of those activities we might normally do in our families or social circles are not going to be possible for those folks who are managing their grief.”
However, there’s a careful balance between managing expectations and leaving people out. For example, instead of not inviting someone to the annual cookie exchange because you think it may be too much for them, still invite them to participate and perhaps offer to drop off a plate of cookies for them if they decline attending.
It’s important to remember that grief can look different from person to person.
“We don't want to just not invite people because another part of grief is loneliness,” Dahl says. “A lot of times, people want to be invited – even if they don't want to go. They want to hear that they have the choice to come, but also that there won’t be any type of ramifications if they don't attend.”
Sweet says communication is another huge component of helping people struggling with grief – particularly when it comes to loss within a family since each person will grieve differently. She says in order to help each other through – whether it’s the holidays or any time of year – communication is key to knowing what everyone needs. For example, it may be too emotionally difficult for someone who lost a spouse to put up the big, elegant Christmas tree that always adorned the corner of the living room by themselves; however, seeing that the tree is missing may be equally as emotionally difficult for other family members.
“That's the hard thing about a family loss is you have to communicate your needs, but also understand and compromise to help meet the needs of your fellow loved ones as well,” Sweet says.
For those who are supporting a friend or family member as they struggle with grief, perhaps the most important thing to do is find ways to let them know that the memory of their loved one is welcome if they want to talk about it.
Sweet says, “Just listen to them reminisce or maybe ask to see some pictures - anything that will help them to feel like their loved one hasn't been forgotten, and that their grief is welcome at the table as much as they are.”