By Stuart Anfang, M.D.
The holidays are supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ as one song notes. But for some, it may be the most difficult time of the year after the loss of a loved one.
Thanksgiving and the holiday period afterwards can be especially difficult for those who are preparing to spend these joyous occasions this year for the first time without a spouse, child, or other beloved family member or friend by their side. These feelings of grief are only exacerbated this year by COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many, plus the general stress of dealing with the pandemic.
It’s only natural to experience a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and even helplessness and hopelessness while navigating the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But you don’t have to suffer alone. Recognize that you are not alone, and that mixed or sad feelings during the holidays are not uncommon. Do not suffer in silence, and watch for the tendency to isolate or withdraw from others. Denying or bottling up your feelings — or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs — are worrisome signs.
Anticipation of the holidays can cause more stress than the holidays themselves. Planning for the approaching holidays is the first step in developing a coping strategy, and there is no wrong or right way to deal with the holidays. Begin by making decisions that are comfortable for you and your family. Use your awareness that things are different to help you plan what makes sense. Holiday preparations, traditions, and family time may all feel less than normal.
It is also important to remember that one’s emotions and energy level are strongly connected. Good self-care routines are important as you prepare and deal with the holiday season. Get plenty of rest and pay attention to healthy eating. Use alcohol in moderation. Plan self-care activities that will feed your mind, body, and spirit.
As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them. Remember, it’s OK and not a sign of weakness to ask for help, whether it’s help preparing some holiday treats, decorating the home, shopping, or just a shoulder to lean on.
It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you — for example, serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them.
Together, you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums or making and displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased. Given the current COVID-19 circumstances, make sure to follow public-health recommendations about masking, social distancing, and gathering in limited numbers.
Many people also find solace in generosity, as this is the ‘season of giving.’ According to the American Assoc. of Retired Persons, in times of grief, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others, whether it’s a physical present or doing something nice for others in need or who are also hurting. Many people volunteer during the holidays, such as serving meals at a local shelter or distributing toys to needy children.
Still, for some, the holidays may offer a reprieve from sad feelings, and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you.
If you are noticing more significant symptoms causing impairment at work, school, or home — problems with sleep, low energy, dramatic change in appetite or weight, inability to concentrate, frequent crying, easy irritability, thoughts of hurting yourself, or wanting to die — that may be time to seek some professional evaluation. A good place to start can be your primary-care provider or a trusted clergy. Bottom line, help is available, and do not suffer in silence.
Dr. Stuart Anfang is vice chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.