The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and memories, and they always have been for Eleen and me. But the 2008 holiday is the first Christmas we are facing after our son Colin died and the third after our son Richard died. We both admit to apprehensiveness as the holidays gets closer.
There is no doubt the holidays can cause stress for the bereaved, and can often take the joy out of the season. The following article, “Important Tips for Managing the Holidays for the Bereaved,” was written by Gloria Lintermans and Marilyn Stolzman. They sent it to me just after Richard died two years ago and gave me permission to republish here. Their article gives useful tips on learning how to enjoy the holidays again. Thank you Gloria and Marilyn.
On a personal note, this year we are combining Tip 1, CREATE A NEW HOLIDAY RITUAL, with Tip 8, FAMILY AND FRIENDS: our son Ian from Ontario will be spending Christmas with us. It will be his first visit to the West.
I wish you all a holiday time filled with love and light.
Dr. Neill Neill
Important Tips for Managing the Holidays for the Bereaved
by Gloria Lintermans & Marilyn Stolzman, Ph.D., L.M.F.T.
While grieving we go through many firsts as important dates come up on the calendar. Whether it’s the first anniversary, birthday or holiday, it’s good to have coping strategies in place to rely on to help us cope.
The holidays can be a particularly difficult time for the bereaved. While we are used to being with our family members during this time, sadly, an important person in the family is missing. And while we take comfort in having family close—whom we depend on for support—often while in their midst we still feel sad or lost remembering past occasions and events because this time of year is particularly ripe with upsetting memories. The following are suggestions for managing the holidays:
1. CREATE A NEW HOLIDAY RITUAL – Whatever way you might have set the table before, create a new pattern, maybe different seating arrangements, unusual flowers, something that was not tried before. Asking the guests to bring a small gift for a grab bag. The point is to establish a different ritual, a different style that is not a reminder of the past and not doing things exactly the same way.
2. MAKING PLANS – When the bereaved have too much time on their hands, they begin to think and reflect. Often painful thoughts will come up comprised of past memories and events that were shared with the one they loved. Making plans for the holidays help people cope with change and leave them with some structure and things to do. Too much free time can stimulate loneliness and despair. We are reminded at holiday time by advertising, music, sales and a great deal of visual stimulation so that it appears that everyone in the world is having a good time and a place to go. When plans are made, people often feel that they have something to look forward to and share.
3. LIVING IN THE MOMENT – Worries often increase when people go too far ahead in their thinking. If we learn to breathe and stay in the moment, we learn how to be just in “the now”. In this way, we can fully appreciate the moment that is “Now” and not some other moment to come. We can be fully present and observing just what is in front of us. This may sound simple but people tend to over-analyze and over-think too many things. An example might be that if we look at a flower, really look at it, we begin to notice its color, form, shape, uniqueness, scent, petals and pollen. If we can look at every aspect of that flower as if it were the first time we can truly discover it. There can be great joy in living in the moment and not the past and not the future. It gives us a break from our thoughts and minds and allows us to appreciate the present moment we are in. Often we don’t have to do anything with it but notice it. It is a good break from problem-solving and worry.
4. GRATITUDE – When we are grateful for life’s blessings and for what we have, we distract ourselves from what is wrong with our lives. We fixate and ruminate less on what is missing. Being thankful for our children, our healthy minds and bodies. Being willing to be appreciative all the small things in our lives that make up the big things. Our ability to see, to hear, to think, to reflect, to notice, to enjoy and to feel deeply increases our sensitivity and awareness of the world around us.
5. EXERCISE – Exercise is a good antidote for stress through the holidays and stress at other times as well. Enjoying exercise on a regular basis is something good to include in our lives. Whether we walk, swim, bike ride or hike, moving our bodies allows us to be outdoors and observe nature. It often takes us out of ourselves and into the world. It may distract the griever from the constant state of anxiety which often accompanies early grieving. We release endorphins in our brain when we exercise that give our mood a lift. Exercise is often prescribed for depression and depressive thoughts.
6. NUTRITION – The bereaved often cannot eat, do not enjoy food, or may be inclined to eat too much or eat junk foods. Often the grieving person loses interest in food shopping because they don’t know how to shop for one, or they don’t want to cook for themselves. Appropriate nutritional habits are important through the grieving period because the immune system is down due to stress. Everything one can do to stay healthy is helpful. One of the signs that the bereaved is doing better is the indication that they care again about proper nutrition and make the effort to eat more than cheese and crackers. If a bereaved person was a caregiver and spent a lot of time cooking for an ill spouse they would have to learn to slowly convert this energy and give themselves permission to take good care of themselves. This is appropriate and not an indulgence. It is not selfish; it is good self-nurturing.
7. ADEQUATE REST – Sleep often gets disturbed during times of extreme stress. Being mindful of getting enough sleep is a good idea since sleep patterns can be interrupted. People often report that they may fall asleep but have trouble staying asleep. If one was used to sleeping in a bed with their spouse, there is an increased awareness of the empty bed. People tend to oversleep or not sleep enough during high stress times. Listening to soothing music before bedtime is relaxing; not listening to the news before going to bed is a good idea. It is important to not over stimulate the mind at least an hour before bedtime.
8. FAMILY AND FRIENDS – Reaching out to family and friends is particularly helpful at holiday time. Calling and making arrangements for activities and having plans are useful for getting through the holidays. Friends and family can provide comfort, safely, warmth and love. Surround yourself with the people that bring out the best in you. Talk to your friends and allow them to include you in their plans.
Accept invitations, try to laugh and see funny movies. Be less attached to being a third wheel and more attached to how wonderful it is to have people in your life that care and want to be with you. Initiate a dinner or a movie or some activity to share. Be with friends or family members that help you decrease your stress not increase it and look forward to the fact that next year will be easier for you. It is the first experience of holidays that is the most difficult to get through. Encourage yourself to participate. Hopefully, next year will be easier and you will have more events to look forward to that bring you joy.
Gloria Lintermans and Dr. Marilyn Stolzman are co-authors of THE HEALING POWER OF GRIEF: The Journey Through Loss to Life and Laughter (Sourcebooks, Inc., ISBN 1-932783-48-2) and THE HEALING POWER OF LOVE: Transcending the Loss of a Spouse to New Love (Sourcebooks, Inc., ISBN 1-932783-51-2). Marilyn Stolzman, Ph.D., L.M.F.T, is a highly respected practicing psychotherapist specializing in grief counseling in private practice in Woodland Hills, CA., and the Director of the Los Angeles-based non-profit H.O.P.E. Unit Foundation for Bereavement and Transition, an ongoing bereavement support organization serving the community. Gloria Lintermans is a North Hollywood, Ca.-based freelance writer, author, and widow.