[MOL] Grief Series..... [00041] Medicine On Line

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[MOL] Grief Series.....


Surviving The Holidays...

Surviving the Toughest Times After a Loss

by Sherry Trent

I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can!
Everyone knows that the loss of a loved one can be painful for a very long time. With so much research and so many books written on grief, a few very important points have been constant.

First, everyone’s grief process is different. Yes, there are distinct stages of grief (anger, denial, depression, bargaining and acceptance), but you may not follow the pattern exactly. In fact, you may find yourself jumping back and forth between different stages before finally reaching acceptance. When my brother died, I did not even experience any denial, but I did experience the whole range of the remaining stages many times. So remember, you do not need to feel like you’re "not doing it right" or compare yourself to someone else’s experience. That is too much unnecessary pressure for anyone to shoulder.

Another important point is that each experience of loss is different. For instance, you may be affected by the loss of a sibling very differently than by the loss of a parent. Personally, I have experienced many major losses in my life, and my pattern of grieving has been very different with each one. And the first major loss in your life may be the hardest. But again, your experience is a very individual one.

Getting Through the Holidays

One of the toughest times to weather is the holiday season, especially the first one after the loss of a loved one. At this time, when you are surrounded by those people most important to you, it becomes painfully clear that someone is missing. This is a very pivotal point in the healing process. Not only will your course of action allow you to get through the holidays, but it will affect the way you experience holidays for years to come.

First, let me give you some examples (from experience, unfortunately) of different approaches to this difficult holiday period. When the loss is within your family, you may find yourself at the mercy of your family system. Let me explain. If you come from a very loving, open and expressive family, chances are they will deal with the loss in the same manner. If however, you come from a family that is not comfortable expressing feelings directly, you may expect that they will stick to this approach under these most stressful circumstances. And, because grief brings such extremely intense emotions, their reactions will probably be far more extreme than unual. This can make it very difficult to move through the holidays without bad feelings toward the people around you as well as the dreaded holidays themselves.

Let us first look at an example of the latter family. We’ll call them the Denial family. Everyone is showing up for the holiday celebration with their best face on. They are going to pretend that nothing has changed. It is important for them to do this, because not doing so would be much too painful. They are not used to expressing painful emotions, so they prefer to avoid them. But let me remind you, the emotions associated with grief are so strong that they will find a way to get out, one way or another. For instance, one family member is bickering endlessly at another. This is creating tension for everyone. Then there is the person who withdraws, so depressed from the energy required to hold everything in. And, let us not forget to mention the one who "drowns" their feelings with the holiday eggnog or other assorted spirits which are abundant at many holiday gatherings. Now we have a terrible mix of suppressed anger and sadness coming out every which way. People end up hurt, angry at each other, and possibly resolved never to attend another family holiday event. Let me point out, if you haven’t already guessed, this is a very destructive way to deal with grief during the holiday season.

Now let us look at the former mentioned family. We’ll call them the Healthy family. Everyone shows up with their best face on, some better than others, but most importantly, they are choosing to spend this time together. Instead of pretending that nothing has changed, they will, at some point, acknowledge the missing person. They may talk about something that person did last year, or many years ago, and family members will laugh, and perhaps even cry. But, they will not try to forget the lost loved one. They cannot forget them. Relieving themselves of the most painful emotions will make room for the fond memories that are within them. And, in beginning to do so this holiday, it will make their next holiday less painful and, eventually, their holidays to come more enjoyable.

These are, of course, two opposite ends of the spectrum. Chances are that many families are somewhere in-between. This is where your individual choice about how you will approach the holidays is very important. You will need to know that you can grieve in a positive way, no matter what those around you choose to do. Here are some of my suggestions for taking care of yourself through this challenging time:

Some people find it helpful to create some kind of ritual in honor of the missing loved one. Lighting a special candle on the holiday can be comforting, perhaps even a photograph beside the candle to personalize it. Also, wearing an article of their clothing, or a perfume that smells like them can be comforting. When my mother died, I found a housedress of hers that I had seen her wear a thousand times. I wore it sometimes, and it made me think good thoughts of her.

For me, I found that writing a letter to my loved ones helped me to express my feelings and ease my grief. I can’t recommend this enough! It is a very good way to get closure and help you to move on. The following is an example of this type of letter:

Dear Dad:
I really miss you right now. I know the holidays won’t be the same without you here to get everybody singing and laughing. You were always so good at that. I wish you could be here a little longer. I never got a chance to tell you how much I appreciated everything you’ve done for me. But while you were here, it was so hard to talk to you. Sometimes I felt like you couldn’t let me in. But I do know you loved me, and you knew that I loved you. And I’m sorry you won’t get to know your grandchildren. They would have enjoyed spending time with you. I hope you’re in a better place, and all of your pain is gone. I love you very much and will always remember you.

When Children are Involved

This is a very important topic that deserves more than just a mention, but I will include a few suggestions. First, don’t pretend that everything is the same as it was. Feelings will come up for them, and they will need you to validate those feelings. For example, "I know you miss Daddy. I do too." Give them lots of love and reassurance. They need to feel safe.

Children may act out their feelings in ways that adults think are inappropriate. For instance, they may be expressing anger or sadness in one moment, and then they begin sorting all of their toys or clothes by color the next moment. Don’t worry. This is how they process. I recommend getting the assistance of a child psychologist who’s well equipped to use play therapy. This could be extremely helpful, as children process their emotions through play.

Anniversary Dates & Birthdays

If the holidays weren’t enough, we have many other annual reminders of our missing loved ones. The date of their birth, the date of their death and any other important dates and anniversaries can be very tough to get through. Sometimes, we are not even conscious of these dates and how they are affecting us. For instance, my mother died on April 13th. The first anniversary of her death was painful, as expected. What I didn’t realize until four or five years later, was that every April I would have a very bad month. I was not consciously thinking about the date, but I was subconsciously aware that it was supposed to be a bad time. Therefore, it was. Unfortunately, after I got over this little sabotage of mine, my brother was killed in a car accident on April 17th. I have given up on the redemption of the month of April, but I have learned to respect it. I now call my surviving loved ones during that week, and it keeps me close to them. It’s the best I can do.

You can decide what works for you individually to get through these dates. Again, a special ritual may help: lighting a candle, writing a letter, or even saying a prayer. Or perhaps calling someone you are close to and making a connection. All of these actions will help you in your grief.


A number of good books are available to help you with your grief process. Sometimes friends or members of your church can recommend the right ones for you. Here are a few of my own suggestions:

"How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies" by Dr. Therese Rando

"When You’ve Become a Widow; A Compassionate Guide to Rebuilding Your Life" by Genevieve Davis Ginsburg, MS (A very good book. It may be difficult to find, but she has a newer book called "Widow to Widow; Lifeskill Guide for Women").

"Mourning and Mitzvah; a Guided Journal For Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing" by Anne Brener

For helping children through their grief process:

"Lifetimes; a Beautiful Way of Explaining Death to Children" by Brian Mellonie This book explains how everything; plants, animals, insects and people; has a beginning and an end. I highly recommend this book.

"I Miss You, Mr. Hooper", a Sesame Street book which helps children understand and acknowledge the permanence of loss and the sad feelings associated with it.

Sherry Trent lives in Los Angeles with her husband and five year-old daughter. She writes from her own journey through grief and loss. Sherry Trent keeps all copywrite permissions. Permission to reprint for personal use only.

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