October can be a pivotal time that highlights the anticipation of the coming holiday season. And, for those dealing with grief and loss, it can also mean an increase in despair. The holidays are often filled with shiny happy people who are hustling and bustling with good cheer and celebratory plans. There is a rush of excitement as lights are strung, presents are wrapped, kisses are shared under the mistletoe, and laughter dances on the night air as people party hop from one holiday event to another. And, amidst all the joy, there are those that are heartbroken over loss. In October of last year, we endured our own loss by saying goodbye to a favorite family member on the 12th and then experiencing our second miscarriage on the 14th. This was a devastating time of grief for us…an incredibly heart wrenching and soul crushing time. Needless to say, grief and loss is not a stranger to our family so this message is not only a reminder for those that might read it but also a reminder for us. And, we wanted to honor the one year anniversary of our loss by sharing these grief/holiday survival tips with you.
Loss is different for everyone. It can be brand new loss or loss that has lingered for decades. For some, it is public and well known. For others, it is quiet, private and personal. For some, it’s the loss of a loved one- a parent, a child, a best friend, a family member, a mentor, or a miscarriage. Perhaps it’s about the anticipated loss of someone sick or elderly. Or, maybe the loss is connected to a cherished pet. For others, it’s the loss of a career or finances, a change in health, the loss of a home, or a change in a relationship. For some, it’s more about the absence of an unmet dream or an ongoing struggle with faith, hope, and trust. And, let’s not forget those that are missing home and wishing that they could be with their loved ones this season (military, career relocation, etc.). Loss can be present in so many forms yet something that unites all of these different types of loss is that it is often experienced with major intensity during the holiday season.
If you are experiencing some type of loss during this season, we hope that you find some encouragement here. We recognize your loss and we honor the pain and the variety of emotions that you may be experiencing. If you love someone that is dealing with loss, know that you are a valued person and that your concern is appreciated. While the tips below are not necessarily comprehensive, we have found that they work for us and for those that we know. It is our hope that this holiday season is able to hold healing space for your pain and perhaps a little bit of peace and joy.
Tips for those that are experiencing loss and/or grief:
*Give yourself permission to be authentic in how you are feeling. If you want to cry, then cry. And, if you are having a good day then roll with it! If you want to do something fun, then do it. Don’t let guilt rob you of moments of sunshine and laughter. Please know that there is no formula or timetable for grief and loss. Having moments of joy does not devalue or downplay your loss. Conversely, it is providing you energy and emotional strength to manage and survive the loss. It’s ok to be ok while grieving. And, it’s ok not to be.
*If possible, go slow. Be selective in what you do and who you spend your time with. Loss and grief can be moody- you can be skipping along happy as can be and then it punches you in the gut. If you’re in a gut punch phase, honor what you need as best as you can by pacing yourself and your energy. If people and activity is what lifts your spirit, then fill your calendar! But, if quiet reflection and tears is what you need, schedule time for that too. Have a few quiet nights at home or with a favorite friend or family member. It’s about finding a balance. It’s ok to say “no thank you” to an invite. And, it’s ok to change your mind and update your RSVP to YES and/or limit the time spent at a social engagement you don’t feel you can get out of.
*Pick a favorite activity to say yes to. Perhaps this holiday season you don’t have the energy or desire to do ALL things. But, perhaps you feel you can muster up the energy to do 1 thing. Think about what makes you smile and maybe stick to doing just 1 of what comes to mind. Last season, we thought that putting up our tree would bring us joy and light up our dark nights so it went up the day after Thanksgiving- and, embracing that one tradition helped to ease some of the pain we were dealing with.
*Try to have grace for yourself and others. Here’s the thing- people are often uncomfortable with loss and grief and this discomfort can rob people of their voices or make them say stupid things. REALLY STUPID THINGS. And, it puts you in a tough place as you end up giving passes to people left and right for saying those really stupid things. Try to recognize that your friends and family do really care but they are not always properly equipped to respond perfectly (but, really, who is?). And, if you are really suffering as a byproduct of someone else’s discomfort, perhaps try to have a candid conversation with them- but focus on what works rather then what doesn’t work. Be specific in how they can support you such as letting them know the things you need to hear or the actions you prefer. Most likely, they will be relieved to know how best to comfort you.
*Try to make some healthy choices for yourself. You know the basics- get lots of rest, drink water, have some well balanced meals, limit your caffeine and alcohol intake, and try to engage in light and gentle exercise like taking a walk or going on a bike ride. The healthier your lifestyle, the more equipped you are to mentally and emotionally process/manage the loss you are dealing with.
*Call in the troops- Don’t be shy in asking for help or saying yes to those that offer. During our loss, our loved ones filled our hearts with messages of love, baskets of food, and time spent just sitting and talking. Allow yourself to be pampered by those that love you. At the very least, try to confide in at least one person. Total isolation is not the best companion to grief. Share your thoughts and feelings with your loved ones- talk about how you are experiencing the loss, name the loss, share about what’s been going through your mind, how you are getting through the day, etc. If you’re dreaming about it, share about it. If you’re thinking about it, share about it. If you’re crying about it, share about it. Sharing can help release the intensity of the loss and move you into a less intense phase of grief. And, sometimes, the sharing may be saying the same thing over and over again. That’s ok. Just try to share.
*When talking about it doesn’t make sense to you, try something else. Journaling, painting, reading poetry, listening to music, dancing, reading a book on loss, looking at pictures, exercising, praying, scheduling quiet/reflective time, or trying a completely new and different hobby are all ideas that help relieve emotional tension.
*Think about beginning a new tradition. Loss can have a big impact on how the holidays are experienced. For some, loss can completely transform the holidays. Traditions are often a way to feel connected to the season and they invite hope and joy. If your standard traditions feel too difficult, doing something different may just be what you need this season. Perhaps this might be the year to begin a new tradition to help ease the changes experienced by the loss. Maybe it’s something like enjoying a delicious breakfast in place of a more traditional holiday dinner. Or, making a wreath or going to a show or buying gifts for a family in need. Maybe it’s changing up ornaments or adding a different set of lights to the tree. The key here is doing something slightly different that allows you to make new memories in the new phase of life that you are in.
*Lean on what makes you feel stronger. For us, our faith was pivotal in our healing process and likewise it was something we leaned on heavily (and continue to do). Try to identify what makes you feel stronger, a bit less overwhelmed, and encourages healing and do more of it even if it’s in a different way then you are used to. For us, our faith is important to us but we were not ready for the socializing that comes from attending church. So, we took a break from going to church for a few weeks but not from other things that built up our faith and contributed to our healing like prayer and Bible study with a few close friends. Leaning on what makes you feel stronger can help to ease the overall experience of loss.
*Allow yourself the space to experience nurturing and healing. For some, that means going to a support group either in person or online. For others, it’s seeking out counseling. And, for some it’s snuggling with a fluffy puppy on the couch with a warm cup of tea and a good book. Remember, as we said before, it’s ok to be ok even when you’re not feeling totally ok. It’s possible to be both though we understand this can sound like a foreign concept- especially to those in the early loss stage. Ultimately, healing from loss looks different for everyone. For some, they feel they will never truly “heal”- only learn to move through the pain. For others, healing means less moments of feeling punched in the gut and more moments of joy. For others, healing means the return of routine. Ultimately, please allow yourself time to discover your definition of healing as you simultaneously discover your way of dealing and managing loss this holiday season.
Tips for those who love someone that is experiencing loss and/or grief:
*Recognize that the person you love has experienced a loss and try to do something to support them. When speaking to them, don’t be shy to name the loss. If it is a person that recently died, use their name. If it’s a recent health diagnosis, ask if they are comfortable with sharing what they have learned so far about the diagnosis. Also, try to talk to them about things not directly connected to the loss. It can be really hard when friends or family focus the conversation only on the loss and it’s also hard when the loss is totally ignored. In terms of support, be specific. Try not to just say “let me know if you need anything” because most likely, the reply will be “ok” and nothing more. We were so blessed when friends showed up with baskets of love, when cards came in the mail, and invites for simple things where extended. This took the thinking out of it for us. So, try to think of what comforts your loved one and see how you can meet that need. Perhaps suggest a low key social activity like a movie or dinner out at a quiet restaurant or card game at home. If a health diagnosis, perhaps offer to drive them to an appointment or research information on treatment. It’s amazing how much of an anchor a snack, a meal, or a simple and thoughtful encouraging note/text can be in the midst of pain. Need ideas for a basket? Try these: snacks- some healthy and some not so healthy, tea/coffee, bottle of wine, pampering items like soothing/healing soaps, oils, lotions and candles, reading material, gift card for dinner, and more snacks!
*Don’t assume your loved one needs space. Send the invite, text message, or voicemail. If the person can’t reply, they won’t. During our loss, we screened our calls when we didn’t have the energy to talk and we replied when we were ready. But, well intentioned silence can compound the loss that your loved one already feels. Reach out and then be ok if you don’t get a reply.
*Allow space for your loved one to not be strong. Often, during loss, people are encouraged to “be strong” and this can block emotional expression. Let your loved one know it’s ok to cry or laugh- let them know you have their back no matter what emotion is accompanying their loss.
*Finally, be aware of how you are experiencing the loss. Often, when someone close is dealing with loss/grief, the pain is shared. Or, it may trigger a previous loss of your own. Don’t be hard on yourself for experiencing your own range of emotions. You are human- not a robot. So, make sure to take care of yourself as you offer to comfort your loved one. Perhaps confide in a neutral person that is removed from the loss. And, be careful not to monopolize the time you spend with your loved one by over talking about your experience of their loss or a reminder of your separate loss. This may overburden them at a sensitive time. Conversely, if you are asked to share, consider sharing your personal feelings/experience about loss and maybe how you are handling it this holiday season.
As mentioned above, this is not a comprehensive list. However, we found these tips helpful and it’s our hope that they encourage you in this season no matter what phase of loss you are in. Finally, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional if you would like additional support as there are many therapists and support groups that cater to grief and loss.