When Grief Hitches A Ride On Santa's Sleigh
For lots of folks, this time of year represents excitement, joy and celebration. The scent of pine in the air wafting from the tree lots, the twinkling lights and piped in holiday music heightens our senses and provides us cues as to what we should be feeling at this time of year. There is a great deal of media and social pressure to be jolly and filled with holiday spirit. For some people, however, the holidays are filled with anxiety and sadness, particularly for those who have experienced separations or endings within the past year. The emotions associated with termination of a relationship, loss of employment, or separation from or loss of loved ones hits particularly hard at this time of year. Unfortunate as it is, grief eventually becomes intertwined with the holidays for all of us as we age and develop bonds and relationships with others. Some losses are obvious (for example, death or divorce) while others are not so obvious (for example, the loss of a pet, a child leaving the nest, a medical crisis or an adult child's divorce). As these losses accumulate, some natural reactions are to experience anxiety, sadness, regret, irritability or anger, and for some, clinical depression. For many people, one loss in the here and now (for example, a child not coming home for the holidays or being let go on a job) may stir up memories of losses in the past (for example, a parent's death or the loss of a relationship). If you have lost a loved one in 2013, this first holiday season without him or her may be extremely distressing. Holidays, which are traditional times to gather with family and friends, can be a painful reminder that your loved one is no longer with you.
Rather than pull the covers over your head or take solace in the contents of the fridge or a bottle, there are healthier and more adaptive ways to manage one's feelings of grief and loss which I offer to you below.
If you or your family experienced any kind of loss this year, it is important to talk about it. Acknowledge your loss and share your feelings with others. Now is not the time to deny or avoid one's feelings. Reach out to others for support and a shoulder to cry on. It is especially important that you communicate with your friends and loved ones about what you need at this time and let them know how they can be supportive of you.
Talk about how things will be different this season and brainstorm ways you can adjust the holiday celebrations or traditions. Life brings changes and each year will provide you with opportunity to adapt. Try to be present in the here and now to minimize the time you spend lost in the loss. Perhaps you can start a new tradition such as lighting a candle in memory of your loved one or hang a stocking on the fireplace that others can fill with notes or anecdotes about that person.
Cut yourself some slack and be realistic about what you can and cannot do this season. If this has been a particularly difficult year for you, make conscious choices about the activities you want to engage in this month. Be aware of your emotional limits and engage in the activities that will make you feel better and not increase your stress reactions. I've read that some people plan an exit strategy ahead of time (for example driving their own car to a gathering or event) so that if they feel fatigued or overwhelmed, they will be able to leave the situation on their own time.
Recharge your batteries. Engage in positive self care activities such as ensuring restful sleep. Engage in moderate exercise and try to maintain healthy eating habits. Remember excessive drinking or eating will only increase negative self-talk and feelings of depression. Also some people find themselves spending more during the holidays with the hopes that this will alleviate some of their sadness. Spending is a short-term fix and it is likely you will feel more distress when the holiday season is over and you are faced with a large bill from the credit card company.
Consider volunteering at a charity, library or other institution in need. Studies show that when we engage in social interactions, particularly those in which taps into our own sense of generosity, altruism and compassion, we feel less depressed and experience a greater sense of well-being.
Consider whether you may be experiencing an increase in depressive symptoms because you are "in the dark" more because of the shortened days. Perhaps you leave for work before the sun comes up and return home after it has gone down for the day. Seasonal affective depression (SAD) results from being exposed to fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months. Try to get out in the early morning to absorb some rays or consider purchasing a phototherapy lamp to use regularly in the privacy of your home or work center. A few hours' exposure to intense light is shown to be effective in relieving depressive symptoms in patients with SAD.
Lastly, so many struggle with feelings of loss at this time of year. Becoming involved in a grief support group is often helpful for many people. Often funeral homes and hospice centers offer opportunities to connect with others who have experienced loss. Remember you are not alone and there is help out there. If you have been struggling for two weeks or more, having difficulty engaging at work or school, experiencing a change in motivation or interest, experiencing a change in eating or drinking habits or you if are experiencing a sense of hopelessness about the future, then you might benefit from talking with a mental health professional. You can find a psychologist through the American Psychological Association or by checking with your local County Psychological Chapter. Hoping this issue has provided with you with support and assistance if you have found yourself struggling this month. Also wishing you the very best in the coming New Year.
"You will lose someone you can't live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through. It's like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly--that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp."