Maybe it begins at the store when you see employees replacing the fake spiderwebs and glow-in-the-dark ghosts with gold-and-silver tinsel and giant red poinsettias. Or perhaps it’s when the first greeting card arrives, and you remember you’ve forgotten to mail the personalized cards you ordered last summer. Then it hits you that you honestly don’t care if you ever mail them. Suddenly, you’re overwhelmed with feelings—longing, regret, sadness. You want to feel the happy glow of the holiday season. You really do. But you can’t. Someone you loved has died.
Whether the person who’s passed has been gone weeks or months, getting through the holidays—or any other significant event such as a birthday or anniversary—means facing your sorrow anew. Each new wave of heartache can be surprising, especially if you expect the process of grieving to be neatly ordered along the lines the five now-familiar stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “But grief isn’t that simple,” says Greg Adams, director of the Center for Good Mourning at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “Grief is so much messier and complicated and individual. It’s different for every person.”
Grief, Adams says, is typically a “dual model of bereavement” that involves feeling the pain of loss while adjusting to the reality of life without the person who died.
You’ll cry, get angry and dwell on the circumstances of the death while also engaging in “restoration activities” of adapting to a new role, honoring your feelings, managing changes in your daily routine and cultivating new relationships. “Finding a balance between those two things seems more realistic than thinking there are stages you go through.”
The most straightforward strategy for handling grief involves giving yourself permission to feel or not feel, do or not do, sing or not sing and perhaps even accept that you want to simply be left alone. “When it comes to the holidays after a loss, the hard part is handling expectations,” Adams says. “People deal with a lot of expectations for themselves and from the people around them. The reality is, there’s no way to match those expectations.”
Before the holidays arrive, Adams suggests trying to pinpoint what you can and cannot handle. “Think intentionally about what will help you get through this year; then tell your family and friends and get their support,” he says. If you don’t want to have a family gathering at your house, perhaps another family member might take over hosting the festivities this year. If you believe it’ll be beneficial to get away from reminders of the past, consider taking a mini-vacation and spend some time pampering yourself. Give yourself a break, and do only the things that bring you comfort. And, he says, don’t consider any decision you make this year to be binding. Next year, you may want to hold the family
gathering at your house.
During the holidays—or any time of year, for that matter—temper your expectations with the knowledge that grief isn’t linear or predictable, Adams advises. Grief may be intense for weeks and then subside enough to let you feel that life is returning to normal, only to resurface in a wave powerful enough to knock you out of your newly acquired sense of equilibrium. “You can’t go through it all at one time and think you’re done with it,” he says. “What happens is, at some point the low times aren’t as low, they don’t last as long and the pain softens. As time goes by, people get to a place where their memories bring comfort, and they have a greater understanding of what’s really important to them.”