When we lose someone close, we love them and miss them forever. Many months and even years after a loss our grief ebbs and flows: at moments it may fade into the background, but at other times it comes crashing in upon us, reminding us of all the ways our loved one’s absence is ever-present in our lives.
The holidays, with their family gatherings, special memories, and ubiquitous reminders of what has been lost, can bring intense and even overwhelming grief emotions to those who are recently bereaved, not so recently bereaved, or who are struggling with prolonged or complicated grief. Although these upsurges are common and unsurprising, they can worry family and friends and leave bereaved people feeling blindsided and out of control. To manage these feelings they may try avoiding social situations or putting on a happy face until they are alone—strategies that can be effective in the short run but leave them feeling isolated. Others may turn to heavy drinking or other self-harming behaviors to try to numb the pain, or turn on themselves or other loved ones in irritability or anger.
Ignoring, minimizing, or trying to escape from grief, or critically judging oneself for grieving, unfortunately makes a difficult situation worse. Instead, recognizing that it is natural to experience increased sadness at this time of year can make grief more manageable and allow the grieving person to plan for what to do when it happens. Be kind and comforting to yourself and lower your expectations of yourself during these times. Allow yourself to cry when the urge comes over you; give yourself permission to leave a party early or take a walk when you feel sad. If baking your loved one’s favorite pastries triggers intense grief, order pastries instead; if baking your loved one’s favorite pie gives you warm, feelings of closeness to them, however bittersweet, go ahead and bake. Only you can decide how to be kind to yourself and what will work for you. But thinking ahead about how to care for and comfort yourself when grief catches you off guard can give you more confidence in managing painful grief emotions.
For some people, especially strong feelings of grief come at predictable times; in those cases it can be helpful to plan for how you will cope when the time comes. If you tend to feel sad in the morning, consider including one small pleasure or comfort to look forward to each day. If you know you will feel increased grief on a particular day—on holidays or just a day you associate with your lost loved one—you might try the following 3 step plan: First, do something on that day that honors or expresses your love for them. This could be anything from a visit to the cemetery or a place of worship to listening to their favorite holiday songs, looking at photos, or spending time in a peaceful place reflecting on your loss. Next, plan to do something to soothe yourself. This can be as simple as having a cup of tea, taking a bike ride or walk with a friend, or anything else that feels genuinely comforting. And lastly, plan to do something that takes your mind off grief for a while. Spend time with friends, volunteer at a shelter, watch an amusing movie, shop for a gift just for you: anything that provides respite from grief and brings your focus to the present. And if you find yourself smiling or enjoying yourself, even for a moment, let yourself have those feelings: positive emotions are an important part of the grieving process. You may find that once you have a plan in place, your anticipation of that day becomes less daunting; some people find that just planning ahead for the day is helpful, whether or not they end up following through exactly.
Finally, remember that it is difficult to grieve alone. Being with others, even for a short time if you don’t feel too sociable, can offer immeasurable comfort during grief. And while we all need people in our lives, we also need private time for solitude and reflection when grieving. Try to find a comfortable balance that works for you,
Though it’s rarely easy, when grief is progressing in a way that a bereaved person finds manageable psychotherapy is not necessary, though some bereaved people may benefit from compassionate support and knowledgeable guidance. But if grief has become unmanageable, specialized grief-focused therapy with someone who is trained in interventions for grief adaptation can be especially helpful. Visit Dr. Gorscak’s website for information on her services, especially for those who might be struggling with complicated grief.
Bonnie Gorscak, PhD
For more information, also visit: www.complicatedgrief.columbia.edu