Holiday Grief

The winter holidays are upon us. For many it is a season of family, festivities, wonder, hope and joy. For others it is a time of profound sadness, loneliness, anguish and grief.

Holidays often magnify the grief experience; feelings are more tender and the pain seems more real. If the grief is new, the holidays can be excruciating. As the holidays approach, those who have experienced a loss may be dreading the experience. The reality is that the anticipation of any holiday for those in grief is generally much worse than the actual holiday.

Additionally, there is generally increased stress for anyone over the holiday season: decorating, socializing, shopping, cards to send, additional commitments, financial concerns. Add a dose of grief, and the stress can be intolerable.

Grief is the normal process of reacting to a loss. The loss may be physical (such as a death), social (such as divorce), or occupational (such as a job). Emotional reactions of grief can include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, confusion, inability to concentrate, numbness, difficulty making decisions, nightmares, irritability, apathy, loss of self-esteem and despair. Physical reactions of grief can include crying, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, tightness in the throat and chest, digestive problems, dry mouth, feelings of emptiness, disorientation, sensitivity to noise, change in sleeping and eating patterns, an inability to swallow, or illness.

Grief is a universal and unavoidable aspect of life; at some point everyone grieves. As an officer, you know this all too well. You witness grief on a daily basis. When an officer is killed in the line of duty, no matter where in the country, all officers grieve.

You may not be experiencing a sense of loss, of grief; but someone you know is. It may be a friend who lost a parent, a relative who divorced this year, a partner whose son is fighting in Iraq, the father of the 16-year-old who committed suicide, the wife of the fatal traffic collision victim, etc. It is okay to reach out to someone who is grieving, lend an ear, offer support, or even share the following tips on how to survive this season.

12 Tips for Coping with Holiday Grief

There is no right or wrong way to handle the season or any particular day. When someone is grieving it is important that they find ways to care for themselves as well as learn how to ask for support. These tips are for those who have lost a loved one through death. They can be modified and related to other losses, such as the loss of a relationship. The following guidelines may help a grieving individual with the holidays. Some may wish to follow family traditions to help keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

  1. Plan ahead as to where and how you will spend your time during the holidays. Plan to be with the people you enjoy, doing activities you like. Consider making some changes to traditions, even if they feel uncomfortable; change the menu, eat out, take a vacation, open gifts at a different time or at a different location. This may prevent old memories from opening new wounds.
  2. Be careful not to isolate yourself before, during or after the holidays. Take any offered support from your friends and family.
  3. Redefine your holiday expectations and re-examine your priorities. Let yourself scale back on activities if you want to. Decide what you can comfortably handle, and let your friends and family know. Don't over burden yourself with too many chores. Ask yourself if you really enjoy decorating, sending out cards, baking, etc. If the answer is "no," ask someone to share the tasks with you, or just skip them this year.
  4. Give yourself permission to express your feelings. It is natural to feel sadness and lonely when you reflect on your loss. If you feel an urge to cry, go ahead, tears can be very healing. If you feel like screaming, that can be therapeutic too. Share concerns, apprehensions, feelings with someone you feel close to. When you are especially missing your loved one, call a family member or dear friend and share your feelings. If they knew him or her, consider asking them to share some of their memories with you. The need for support is often greater during holidays. If someone wants to comfort you, let them. Some people need to feel they are helping in some way.
  5. Do something for others; donate a gift in memory of your loved one, volunteer at a shelter, help a needy family, bake cookies for residents in a nursing home, ring bells for the Salvation Army, help a neighbor with his decorations.
  6. If you do decide to do holiday shopping, consolidate your effort. Shop online or through catalogs. If you do go to stores, go during off-hours, make a list and only buy the items on it. Or, give out IOUs out and do the shopping when you feel more comfortable. Buy yourself a special gift and wrap it from your loved one. Make sure to be realistic related to your budget. Financial overindulgence can make things worse.
  7. Recognize your loved one's presence in the season. Burn a special candle, hang a stocking where people can place notes, listen to his/her favorite music, and look at photographs. Create a memorial area in your home or at the gravesite for the deceased and decorate it.
  8. Write a letter to your loved one expressing what you are honestly feeling toward him or her at this time, what you miss, and what you remember. After you compose the letter, you can read it out loud, save it in an album, or even throw it out.
  9. Protect yourself from events and gatherings that are too much to handle. When invited to a gathering, ask who will be there and what they will be doing. This is not a good time to socialize with difficult people. Stay away from people who believe you should "be over it by now." This additional stress will only compound your feelings of loss.
  10. Take care of yourself. Emotionally, physically and psychologically, the holidays are draining. Eat healthy meals and exercise. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Try to get enough rest. Practice relaxation techniques to help the stress level. Play music that is comforting and meaningful to you. Maintain your hygiene. Do something to make yourself feel better; watch a favorite movie, soak in a bubble bath, or get a massage.
  11. Give yourself and other family members permission to celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays. Don't be afraid to have fun! Take pleasure in the small delights of the season as often as you can. Find something to be joyful about, something to laugh about. Remembering a special time with your loved one may bring tears and laughter while soothing your heart.
  12. Remember that the holidays may affect other family members. Keep in mind the feelings of family members and children. Try to make the holiday season as joyous as possible for them. Discuss plans with others and make sure there are no surprises. While it is important to share your concerns, feelings and apprehensions, be open to compromise.

Memories, hopes and new tomorrows

The pain of grief never completely leaves. Normally, and over time, the intense initial feelings begin to fade. There is no magic date for this. If someone's grief is grossly prolonged, and/or all consuming, or includes suicidal ideation, appropriate medical help should be sought. Medications, individual counseling or a grief support group can significantly help with the grief process.

If you are grieving this holiday season, take heart knowing that others have survived the process. There will be joy to be found--look for it. Use your memories and turn them into hopes aimed at many new tomorrows.