Coping with Holiday Grief

The holidays can be a tough time if you lost a loved one during the previous year. Suddenly, someone who was a part of family celebrations and joy is not there. Grief is magnified by holiday family traditions.

Grief often leads survivors “inward” to focus on their emotions, and dwell on how their loss has broken their emotional stability. This focus is certainly understandable. Unfortunately, though, because holiday time is so strongly associated with happy times for most people, the inward spotlight magnifies sadness, despondency, frustration, guilt, anger – a literal flood of overwhelming emotions that can be devastating. That’s why an inward focus on grief – while OK in small doses – can ravage the coping process if it becomes a daily addiction.

Fortunately, the holidays provide ample opportunities for an “outward” focus to help the aggrieved “live through” their grief. Christmas, for instance, amplifies the need for a parent who has lost a spouse to bring the magic of the time to their kids. The grief-stricken – in a spirit of empathy – can also reach out to others who have fallen on hard times, and discover that this outward focus gives them a way to move forward with their own grief, and honor their departed loved one.

I remember many years ago when a friend of our family suffered a great loss when her son-in-law was killed in an accident several months before Christmas. Her daughter, Jill, now a young widow in her late 20s, came to live with her mom temporarily while both of them sorted out their emotional lives.

My mother invited them to join us for Christmas dinner. Before dinner, my mom handed each of them a wrapped present. Jill was dumbfounded. “But I have no present for you,” she said. “Yes, you do,” my mom replied. “Your presence is our gift.”

I was in college at the time and thought that comment was pretty cool. Years later, however, I saw the comment in a new light.

Giving vs. receiving – we generally separate these actions as quite distinct, but they’re not. When Jill accepted the gift from my mom, she also gave my mom something very special in return: the blessing of fulfillment and satisfaction. It sounds corny but I think my mom received a gift of feeling part of the family of humanity; mom discovered that a simple gesture to someone in distress – “Yes, Jill, you are saddened and in pain, but life endures through the pain.” – offered mom the special “gift” of receiving through the act of giving. So, looking at Jill and my mom, who gave and who received?

For me, the lesson here is pretty straightforward: Are you in emotional pain – depressed, saddened, hurt, upset, guilty, angry? Focus on what’s “out there” and how you can be a part of it. After all, it’s life out there. Accept and receive from others, and in doing so, you will discover that you are also giving, and bringing honor to the memory of your loved one. Give your service and help to those who, like you, need support, and you will be blessed with the contentment of loving your neighbor.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

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