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Surviving the Holidays while Grieving

December 08, 2022

Chaplain Richard DeFord leads the Grief Recovery Program at Fitzgibbon Hospital.

     Many of us are approaching the holidays while grieving a loss that has happened in our lives this year or even the not-so-recent past. Many are facing this holiday season with an empty chair at the table and an empty place in their heart. We watch those planning for Christmas, and we feel like we are somewhere else. We feel numb.

     For many of us who have lost someone close to us this year, we find we are having trouble concentrating. We are clumsy, unfocused, tired. Grieving.

     I have learned there are two different definitions of grief. One is the feeling of reaching out for that loved one, one more time, only to realize they aren’t there. Or for those relationships that weren’t necessarily positive, it is the feeling of reaching out for them only to realize they were never there for us, and they will never be there for us. Perhaps this definition resonates with how you are feeling today. That is grief.

     The second definition is seen in the conflicting emotions from a change in familiar pattern or behavior. Retirement, divorce, a child leaves to go off to school or start a family, loss of health or mobility are just a few of the more than 40 types of grief and loss we face as humans.

     This year, you may have felt the uncomfortable glances and conversations. You have heard or said the words, “be strong for your family.” You may have even heard the well-meaning words, “Your loved one is in heaven” or “…at least they aren’t suffering anymore.”

     Perhaps these words are true, but they sound so empty.

     Maybe you have heard that God would never give you more than you can handle, a statement which is not found in the Bible. Though uttering these words makes well-meaning people feel better to say them.

     Perhaps we have said these things to others. And yet now, those same words feel so empty. The reason is that these words are meant to salve the mind. But grief is not a problem of the mind. Grief flows from a broken heart. Here is another secret:  grief is completely natural.

     So when you are grieving, how do you plan to make it through this holiday season? Following are 10 recommendations.

1)    Don’t isolate yourself. You may want to, but purposefully engage. Even if you don’t stay the entire time at the party or gathering, still make the effort to show up. That connection is important.

2)    Cut the uncomfortable moments with grace and honesty. When you can tell that people don’t know what to say to you, beat them to it. Say, “You know, this holiday is going to be hard for me, but I am so glad I am here with you.”

3)    Watch out for overeating or over drinking. We tend to eat to excess at the holidays anyway. But throw in the feelings of grief, and you begin to try to drown it with food or beverage, which not good for you or for anyone else.

4)    Realize that this holiday is NOT going to be the same as it was before. It just isn’t. Normal is only normal while it is normal. Then when “normal” changes, it is different. And that is what this holiday will be. Different.

5)    Keep up with your traditions. If you and your loved one made Christmas cookies, or went to a favorite restaurant, or watched a favorite Christmas show or movie, do that. Use the tradition as a time to remember. Don’t feel like you must “move on.” You will never “move on.” You will just move differently.

6)    For those who are grieving a loss from years ago, understand that time does not heal all wounds. If time healed all wounds, soldiers returning from the battlefield would be able to function without prosthesis or PTSD. If you lost your arm today, you would never grow a new one. You will learn to function without; you will adapt. But you will never be healed from that loss.

7)    Move through your pain, not around it, over it or under it. When we avoid the pain, we begin to fill our lives with negative behaviors which can result in illness. Raised blood pressure, ulcers, cancer and a host of other stress induced illnesses are often the result of these negative behaviors.

8)    Don’t forget that children grieve too. They often hide it well, as they often want to please. However, they often have a storm of thoughts and emotions working inside of them, and they are watching how the adults in their lives handle their grief. If the adults in their lives mourn, they will feel it is ok to mourn rather than to suppress those thoughts. And the behaviors they learn as a child, the things to which they turn to help them forget often turn into addictions later in life.

9)    You may have told yourself you need to be strong, or you may have had an adult tell you that you needed to be strong for a younger sibling. Here is the truth. You can be Superman, or you can be real. What you and your family need may simply be permission to grieve. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Seeing you ask for help may be just what others need as well.

10)  Lastly, if you can, volunteer. Ring a bell, serve a meal or buy a present for a child. Do something outside of yourself. For when we choose to give, it is then that you receive. Take a moment and look around. There are people everywhere working through similar thoughts, feelings and struggles as you are. Not the same as you, because your grief and thoughts are unique to you. But similar.

     The author of this article, Richard DeFord, leads the Grief Recovery Program at Fitzgibbon Hospital.  The program is free for all adults to attend, made possible through memorial donations to Fitzgibbon Mary Montgomery Hospice.  The next Grief Recovery Group will begin at 6 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 9 in the upstairs classroom suite at Fitzgibbon Hospital.  Individuals can visit to find out more.