Coping with Grief During the Holidays

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While there is a whole heckuvalot of “Joy to the World” going on during this holiday season, I must admit that there is also a whole lotta “getting through” the holiday season, what with the gift giving, party going/giving, over consumption, etc.

To complicate things, milestone events (e.g., holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.) are by their very nature reasons to reminisce. These times of reflection can result in an open invitation to reexperience the pain associated with (a recent or long-ago) loss. In other words, holidays can revive feelings of sadness or longing, even for those who have “finished” their grieving and moved on.  

This emotional floodgate opening is called an “anniversary” reaction and is common, however the cascade of emotions that may be reactivated during this period can often be surprising.

Indeed, the mourning process is unique to each person. We all hold and release grief in our own way (and in our own time). There are, however, some consistencies in the way that people process grief. Beginning to understand the grieving experience, and taking gradual steps to address the natural pain associated with loss is a super important and integral component of recovering from grief.

Please know that grief reactions are expected and normal…yes, even when the flood of emotions can come out of (seemingly) nowhere and blindside you like a Mac truck. You are not cuckoo. I promise. It may help to know that generally, there are four different types of normal grief reactions:

Physical

  • Dry mouth, tight throat, headaches, dizziness, or muscle aches
  • Exhaustion, lack of energy, or weakness
  • Heart palpitations, breathlessness, or gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Hollowness in stomach, or tightness in chest Increase in/loss of appetite, or weight gain/loss

Emotional

  • Abandonment, loneliness, or hopelessness
  • Emptiness, despair, numbness, sadness, or loss of ability for pleasure
  • Helplessness, or loss of control
  • Fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • Relief, yearning, anxiety, or shock

Cognitive (Psychological)

  • Confusion, or inability to concentrate
  • Sense of unreality
  • Idealization, or preoccupation with thoughts of beloved
  • Dreams of the beloved
  • Search for meaning in life and death

Behavioral

  • Agitation, angry outbursts, or over-reactivity
  • Impaired work performance, impatience, or pacing
  • Social isolation, or withdrawal from friends and relatives
  • Avoiding conversation/talking constantly about beloved
  • Avoiding reminders/seeking or carrying reminders of the beloved

The key to getting through the holidays (and sometimes, just getting through is in and of itself a great success) is acknowledging the pain and the normalcy of these grief reactions. If you notice that any of these reactions are staying with you for a prolonged period of time (more than a week or so), I would recommend seeking professional assistance to help you process everything.

Additionally, I would gently recommend that, to the best of your ability, that you try to:

  • Be aware and kind with yourself (by allowing more private time or more time around who will listen with kind sensitivity)
  • Exercise (even a short walk can make a huge difference)
  • Maintain a healthy diet (watch your alcohol, caffeine and sugar intake)
  • Open the windows (or go outside! Fresh air has a way of healing)
  • Rest (nap in the middle of the day if your body needs it)
  • Seek support (from family, friends or a professional if reactions persist)
  • Enjoy small pleasures (from a massage to a sunset to a cup of tea)

Do what you can with what you have and know that you are not alone and that tomorrow is another day…and hopefully that day will have a Silver Lining or two.

References:

  • Doka, K. Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. New York, NY: Lexington Books, 1989.
  • Parkes, C.M. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life. London, UK: Tavistock, 1999.
  • “The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast,” January 1999.
  • Worden, J. W. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner 3rd ed. New York, NY: Springer Press, 2001.

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Comments

  1. Mothercrone says

    Sometimes it's difficult for me to deal with my own mortal reality. Wondering "is this my last holiday?" I know…that sounds morbid and I don't mean it to. And probably there will be tons and tons of more holidays for me. And yet, I can't help but wonder. My breast specialist told me 3 weeks after my surgery that my cancer was going to come back. Essentially I allowed her to take away my hope and the opportunity to declare myself, "Cancer Free" because I've never felt cancer free. Does that make sense to anyone?

    • says

      It does make sense. I wonder why (on earth!) your breast specialist said that. What a disappointment. Why/how could you declare yourself "cancer free" when you were told that? I'm so sorry to hear this. Please accept my very best wishes for a happy, health-FULL and cancer free 2013.

      • Mothercrone says

        She said that because of my particular kind of breast cancer and my biopsy reports. She's never been known for her kind or gentle demeanor. Although I try to always remain positive, her comments always remains in the back of my mind and sometimes I let my dark humour rise to the surface.

  2. says

    I lost my parents in1988 and 2004. I still think of them daily.We were very close. I just lost my husband on Nov. 11th this year. I knew he was really going down hill for the last couple of years he wasn't ever hungry. Just ate such a little bit.He had heart surgery 20 years ago. Had a pacer and defibulator also. Just 3 weeks before his death he got so he could not walk. we took him to serveral drs.Was in hospital 3 different times. My 2 daughters and I tried to care for him when home. home health care started to help us out. he was in hospital5 days the last time. He seemed to stay about the same until Saturday. Called all the kids and grandkids in to see him as we knew things were getting much worse. He lasted about 5 hours. All the family was there with us. Our pastor came and stayed with us the whole 5 hours. Ivan was visition pastor for our church.He had a faith in our Lord. Lead many to the Lord and loved everyone.
    The Lord gave us such a peace for the whole time.The peace was so wonderful we all knew the Lord was with us.He passed on so peaceful. Such a look of contentment. The Lord has been with our son and 2 daughters and myself. Son even made a comment he sometimes even feels guilty for such a peace. Sure we have all shed tears at times but We all know he is with the Lord and is okay so that makes us okay too. He just spent his 1st Christmas in heaven and we will see him some day. Lean on the Lord. It really helps. It is just a separtion for a little while.Praise the Lord. Eleanor Ford

    • says

      Dear Eleanor,
      Thank you so much for sharing. I'm so sad to hear about the death of your husband. I imagine that he appreciated all of the care that you gave to him during his illness. I'm so glad that you all were able to be together at the end of your life. What a gift. Thank you again for sharing your story.
      Wishing you all the best in 2013.
      Warmly,
      Hollye

  3. Valerie Barton says

    Thank you so much for your blog. I read it daily, but this is the first time I have commented. This entry about grief speaks to me. I lost my husband of 27 years on Aug. third. The holiday season has been difficult. It helps to know that my feelings are a normal part of grieving. I find your blog to be helpful and encouraging not only to those with breast cancer, but the families of cancer patients. I especially find your quotes encouraging. Wishing you and your family health and happiness in the new year.

    • says

      Dear Valerie,
      Thank you for both reading and today for commenting. I'm so sad to hear about your husband. The fact that this is your "first" holiday without him complicates this particular time of the year even more.
      Your feelings are indeed normal. Absolutely.
      Thank you for your kind words. I hope that we will continue to be in touch.
      Sending my very best wishes.
      Take good care of yourself.
      Hollye

  4. Linda Galowich says

    Thanks so much Hollye. I just read your article to my father
    who, along with all of us, is having a difficult time since
    my mom's sudden death last Christmas. This Christmas we were
    blindsided by the grief and your words are a tremendous
    comfort to my father and to me.

  5. Kim C says

    Thanks for this, Hollye. It felt like you were writing directly to me. I have often felt as though I might be in some kind of "healthy" denial about my cancer diagnosis, but this Christmas felt hard at times. I started chemo on Dec. 21 a few years ago, and this year it was a particularly difficult day. What you've said in the blog helped me to reflect on this and made perfect sense. It helps to remember that this is, as you say, "normal".
    Warm wishing for a blessed New Year.
    Kim

    • says

      All of your feelings are normal indeed, dear Kim. Absolutely. Sometimes when I feel especially vulnerable, acknowledging the normality of my feelings helps immensely. All best wishes to you!

  6. says

    The symptoms you list under the 4 headings of normal grief reactions: physical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral, appear to to be very serious signs of severe depression. if you have just one or two of these symptoms for a brief period of time, then fine; you may be able to handle the grief on your own. But I would suggest that if you are feeling multiple symptoms of grieving for any length of time, you should definitely see a mental health professional. He or she should be able to get you through and past the grief sooner, possibly with a medication to assist you, so that you can begin to enjoy your life again.

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