Coping with Death During the Holidays

You swing from anguish to anger to emptiness when someone you cherish dies. New grief can be all-consuming. In your emotional landscape, there is no place for happy holidays. Good cheer seems artificial, a world existing beyond a wall of glass, a world you can see but cannot feel. Even when your loss is further out, and the sharp pain has softened, the sights and sounds of the holidays can arouse feelings of longing and deep sadness that make the season a difficult time.

Reconciling your inner grief with the Season of Joy

“The pain of bereavement at holiday time is heightened,” says April Boone, Coordinator of Bereavement Services at Brooklyn and Queens Catholic Charities, “because the void is acute when mixed with memories and the realization that things will not be the same. Holiday music is a real trigger. It marks time and association with people in deep memory.”

Your first impulse might be to ignore the holidays altogether. Keep the decorations in storage; decline the party invitations. Should you follow this impulse, or push yourself through the season with a forced smile? “Both,” says Boone. “Grief is messy. Everyone is unique in this, and there should be no judgment as to how someone moves through it.”

The power of tradition and ritual to heal

Boone, a Master of Theology and certified chaplain, speaks on the spiritual nature of ritual and the importance of holiday traditions. “They bring comfort because they are familiar ways of marking time (seasons) in family/cultural life.” In dealing with grief, she views ritual as a metaphor, a physical manifestation of psychological processes. “The ritual is a way to reconcile the confusion in your subconscious. In other words, you can see your pain outside yourself — a transition.”

Continuing old traditions and creating new ones

You may want to keep family traditions during the holidays to acknowledge that life continues. Boone suggests adding to those traditions to honor the deceased. “Some people make a new tradition using ‘artifacts’ from the deceased to decorate with, or to give away. Or, some people start from scratch — going to a completely different venue, taking a holiday cruise instead.” She advises people to be creative when making their own personal rituals. She says in her own family, she and her sister, following the death of their mother, began a tradition of making snow angels on their mother’s grave. “…it was a way to remember her legacy and to bond together — not all rituals have to be serious.”

How to cope

“Crying is not a sign of weakness, but of moral injury and adjustment,” says Boone. It is important to let grief surface, to acknowledge it. “The main thing is to let it out so that healing can begin. It may take a season, it may take a lifetime, but it is the result of a wound that is love.” She offers these suggestions for dealing with loss:

Journaling — “Writing letters to the deceased, to God, to oneself, helps integrate the loss.” Boone notes that Ernest Hemingway gave good advice when he wrote, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

Be kind to yourself — “Seek support from people who won’t say, ‘Oh, you should be over that by now…’ and various other callous remarks.” How an individual handles loss is unique — “…no one should be ‘comparing’ their grief.” Seek out support groups if you need to connect with others. If you are not functioning well, you may benefit from therapy.

Say the name of the deceased — “Don’t try to hide it.” Saying the name of your lost loved one helps you reclaim the relationship.

Light a candle — When you are feeling lonely, light a candle, Boone suggests. “It is a simple, intentional action that will make a movement through pain.”

Holiday traditions are rich in symbolism. The evergreen Christmas tree represents eternal life; the Jewish Festival of Lights “…helps to dispel darkness in winter and, by metaphor, sadness in our hearts.” By acknowledging your pain, embracing traditions that bring you comfort and creating new rituals to honor the one you’ve lost, you will build a better understanding of your own interior life, says Boone, and form a bond with the legacy of your loved one.