While the holiday season brings festivity, excitement, and cheer to many, it can be a terribly challenging time for those who are living through bereavement. The death of a loved one can turn the holidays from a time of joy into a time of mourning. Even those experiencing disenfranchised grief - perhaps following the loss of a relationship, pregnancy, job, or home - can find themselves in a spirit of bitterness and melancholy during this time of year.
Kenneth J. Doka, PHD, Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, is an expert on grief and loss. He has written or contributed to 24 books and over 100 articles on grief throughout his career. In the book Journeys with Grief: A Collection of Articles about Love, Life, and Loss, Doka writes about what he calls the “3 C’s of coping with the holidays”. Choose, Communicate, Compromise.
Exercise your right to choose what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with during this season. You may have a sense of obligation to say yes to every holiday invitation, but you have full permission to do what is best for your emotional needs. You may choose to say no to traditions that you are accustomed to each holiday because they feel too painful this year, and that is okay. You may choose to say yes to new people or experiences that you haven’t traditionally associated with the holidays, and that is also okay.
Another choice that you have this holiday season is how you would like to honor your loss. You could choose to light a candle, reminisce on old pictures, or visit a place that holds significant memories for you. Consider creating something tangible like a painting, piece of jewelry, or memorial garden that could serve as a way to both honor your loss and help you process the complicated feelings of grief.
Once you make your choices as to what you are willing and able to do this holiday season, it is important that you communicate them with those around you. It can take great vulnerability to verbalize intimate thoughts and feelings with others, but it can help you maintain precious connections with those that are still here with you after loss. If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to respond to their phone call immediately, text to let them know you will call when you are able. If you want to attend the holiday gathering but aren’t sure if you will have the heart to go, let them know you’d like the freedom to decide the morning of the event. Let your friends and family know how you are feeling and how much you are able to participate this holiday season.
When grieving, it can be hard to remember that the loss you have experienced is also affecting others. Everyone processes and expresses grief differently. This is why it is important to be open to compromise with those around you. Watching a beloved family movie may feel painful to you as it brings up memories of your loss, but that same movie could provide comfort and peace to another family member. Neither emotional response is right or wrong, and it is important that there is a safe space for both to be expressed. A compromise could come in choosing to spend an evening in different places, allowing the movie to be viewed by those family members who find it healing while the others go out to see lights or have hot chocolate. You could even compromise with a “yes, but not now” plan to watch the movie in the spring, reminiscing together in a time when the loss may not feel as raw as it does during the holidays.
Allow yourself the space to choose, communicate your needs honestly, and remain open to compromise. May these three intentional acts bring you a sense of peace, calm, and ownership of your healing as you balance grief and joy this holiday season.
Journeys with Grief: A Collection of Articles about Love, Life and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., MDiv., copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2012.
Igor Dubovoy, @dubovoy_artist on Instagram