By Richelle Bouska, MA, LPC, NCC; Center for Behavioral Health, Crossing Rivers Health
For many, the holidays bring about warm feelings, fond memories and a hard to contain anticipation of what is to come. But for those of us who are grieving, ‘tis not’ necessarily ‘the season to be jolly.’ In place of the festive spirit that normally accompanies this time of year, there may be a longing pulled from a deep well of sadness. Heartache, as brought about by the loss of a loved one, mutes the otherwise glorious sights, sounds and tastes that once ‘decked our halls.’ When someone you love dies, there is no denying or changing the inescapable truth that there is an empty chair at the table. Although nothing can, nor should, fully take away the pain, there are some things that just might serve as a balm to your wounds. Meaning and hope can be found even when stepping forward into the ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ without someone you love.
First- when facing this season in the absence of a loved one, it is essential that you stay tuned in to your own needs. Grief is among the hardest work you will ever do. It engages the mind, body and spirit in the most profound ways possible. Expect and accept the sting associated with remembering, much like you would acknowledge the thorns on a rosebush but still find beauty in its blooms. Tending to your grieving heart and taking good care of yourself, is like the glove to the pruner’s hand. Even though you might still feel the prick, the thorns won’t penetrate as deeply. So, ‘glove’ yourself well- pay attention to your eating and sleeping habits, utilize healthy coping tools and stress relievers, continue to take prescribed medications, keep appointments and tend to health issues. It is also important to balance your time between work and play, togetherness and solitude. Give yourself permission to set your own pace, position your own boundaries and maintain your own well-being.
Understand that even though there are commonalities found among the bereaved, each person’s experience is unique. What is good for one may not be good for another. Be mindful and be careful of expectations placed on you. Own your right to grieve in ways that are authentic to you. Allow others to do the same. This is not a time for judgement or intolerance. Even those facing the same loss may experience different realities. Remain ever sensitive and empathic. Just as relationships are complicated, so are loss and our reactions to loss. Grief is informed by not only who we are as individuals, but also who the deceased person was during their lifetime.
Tradition goes hand in hand with the holidays. You, along with your significant others, get to choose what to carry forward and what to leave behind. Find comfort where you can in the ‘old ways of doing things’ but stay open to ‘new ways.’ Those ‘new ways’ just might soothe your aching heart and bring a certain kind of unexpected, but welcome, enjoyment.
As invitations are extended, say yes to what you can, and no when it feels right to do so. Consider setting goals and making plans so you can feel a bit more grounded emotionally. Don’t overextend and allow room for adjustments to be made as you go. Some days it may be hard to get out of bed let alone celebrate the holidays. Though I caution against ‘stuffing and avoiding,’ and encourage you to move through your loss, taking a brief reprieve when overwhelmed is sometimes necessary and always understandable! If, what feels right is to decline from the start, or in the end, you decide to step out or bow out entirely, offer whatever explanation you are comfortable with, unapologetically.
It has been said that mourning is the ‘acting out’ of grief. There are many heartwarming ways you can ‘act out’ your grief during the holidays. Consider the following: keep an empty chair at the table and set a place for your missing loved one; donate to their favorite charity or volunteer in their name; prepare and serve their favorite foods; sing their favorite songs or read their favorite stories; invite guests to share special memories; have a moment of silence; pour over old photos and videos, reminiscing about days gone by; place ornaments on the tree in honor of your loved one or light a memory candle. The possibilities are endless! Whatever evokes a sense of connectedness is fitting.
Yes, it is counterintuitive to move toward that which hurts us, but opening yourself up to your loss and embracing all that it entails, is the path to renewal. Seek not to forget, get over or heal from your loss, but rather to weave it in to your life tapestry, recognizing it as a sacred part of your story. So laugh, cry, talk, share and, in essence, courageously live your grief out loud! I believe doing so not only helps you process and reconcile the loss, but it also honors and pays tribute to the one you lost. Every time your loved one’s name passes your lips or crosses your mind during this holiday season, it is a reminder that he or she lived, was loved and is missed.
If you find your burden a bit too heavy during the holidays, my colleagues at Crossing Rivers Health Center for Behavioral Health and I warmly invite you to reach out for extra support. Our caring providers can be reached at 608-357-2700. Crossing Rivers Health Center also regularly hosts community wide grief support groups. Both options provide wonderful opportunities for honoring and working through your loss.