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How to Cope with Grief and Loss During the Holidays

A TIME FOR CHEER, A TIME TO GRIEVE

The holidays are typically a time of cheer, but when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, they can be anything but merry. Karen Mattern, LCSW and VNA Grief Counselor, has a list of suggestions (below) for how to deal with your grief that includes keeping an open mind about how to celebrate. “You can begin new traditions or let others go,” she advises.

Dr. Wayne Creelman, Medical Director at the UF Health Center for Psychiatry and Addiction in Vero Beach, concurs. “A lot of people are handcuffed to traditions…they have an image of what the holiday ‘should’ look like, but when you lose someone that’s not going to happen,” he says. “Allow new traditions to unfold, do new things, create new traditions.”

Dr. Creelman also encourages practicing healthy habits to promote overall well-being. These include getting a good night’s rest as consistently as possible and exercising to boost endorphins, those feel-good chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system. “I’m a big proponent of regular exercise. You can join Planet Fitness for $10.70 a month,” he says. “Or walk outside your house, walk around the block…boost your endorphins.” And he cautions against typical holiday indulgences like drinking too much alcohol and overeating.

But perhaps Dr. Creelman’s biggest piece of advice for those grieving is to spend time with others, and to do so safely per CDC guidelines: (Holiday Tips (cdc.gov).

Spending time during the holidays with others is advice he offers not only for people who have lost a loved one, but for those who have experienced some other significant, if distinct, kind of loss, such as the loss of a job, adding that all of these losses are exacerbated by the time of year. “The end of year is kind of the time people take stock of their lives,” says Dr. Creelman. “When you’ve lost someone in the previous year or haven’t done well financially or lost a job…and don’t have positive self-esteem, the critical thing is to spend time with loved ones. Don’t spend time alone, get together with your friends and family.”

But be choosy about who you spend time with, advises Karen in her grief ‘suggestion list,’ and surround yourself with non-judgmental family and friends. “Please recognize the holiday season will be different. It does not mean you have to be joyful. Just do what you can and allow yourself to feel what you feel,” she writes. She also advises avoiding “all or nothing” thinking. “Every hour does not need to be joyful or filled with activity. And avoid ‘should’ statements which lead to guilt or regret, and exhaustion.”

Dr. Creelman also cautions against overexerting yourself, recalling advice he gave to one of his patients who was invited to three holiday parties on the same night. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘I’d love to be there, but I already committed to one,’ rather than spending fifteen and a half minutes at one place — that’s what creates meltdowns during the holidays, trying to say ‘yes’ to everyone, trying to please everyone. Sometimes you have to focus on yourself and well-being.”

Suggestions by Karen Mattern, LCSW, VNA Bereavement Counselor, on how to cope with holiday grief:

  • Make a plan where you would like to spend the holidays. Inform others of your preferences. Be flexible. Accept your limitations.
  • Adjust your expectations. You can begin new traditions or let others go.
  • Give yourself permission to express your feelings. Cry. Share stories. Laugh.
  • Decorate the burial site or place flowers near the area where your loved ones’ ashes were spread.
  • Enjoy music that is comforting and meaningful to you and your loved one.
  • Give a monetary gift in honor of your loved one’s favorite cause or charity.
  • Light a candle in honor of your loved one. Say a prayer or read a poem.
  • Avoid “all or nothing” thinking. Every hour does not need to be joyful or filled with activity. Avoid “should” statements which lead to guilt or regret, and
  • Drive yourself to holiday events if possible. If you feel you need to leave prematurely then you will not feel obliged to burden someone else with an early departure.
  • Please recognize the holiday season will be different. It does not mean you have to be joyful. Just do what you can and allow yourself to feel what you feel, surrounding yourself with non-judgmental family and friends. Remember, you can always recognize the holidays next year.

 

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