Proper Planning Can Help with Managing Grief During the Holidays

SPRINGFIELD — At this time of year, a common question from individuals who are experiencing grief is, “how will I get through the holidays?”

“There are many special holidays and anniversaries, and these can all be challenging, but from Thanksgiving to the holiday period afterward, it can be especially difficult. Awareness of the issues and having a plan can help you deal with the added stress of this time of year,” said Marlene Quinlan, oncology social worker with the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.

Planning for the approaching holidays is the first step in developing a coping strategy, Quinlan noted. She said there is really no one right way to deal with the holidays, but you can 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,” she noted. “Holiday preparations, traditions, and family time may all feel less than normal. It is also important to remember that your emotions and energy level are strongly connected. Good self-care routines are important as you prepare for and deal with the holiday season. Get plenty of rest and pay attention to healthy eating. Plan self-care activities that will feed your mind, body, and spirit. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.

“As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family,” she continued. “Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them.”

Gift-giving is one of the long-established holiday traditions, which can be stressful due to the cost and physical demands of shopping, she continued, adding that gift-giving can be very stressful under normal circumstances, but if you are grieving, it can be even more stressful.

And, today’s economy adds even more to the stress, noted Quinlan, who suggests practicing smart shopping.

“Shop early and change your shopping routine,” she said. “Order by catalog or online, or, if you like, you can substitute a donation to a worthy cause and limit your gift buying to one or two significant people.”

The Baystate Medical Center social worker said it is important to understand that the stores are filled with holiday cheer and greetings, and you may want to be prepared for your emotional reaction.

“It will also help to be ready with a greeting response that you are comfortable using,” said Quinlan.

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, suggests Quinlan. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you. For example, she cited 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, she noted.

“Remember that your family and friends gathered around you may also be experiencing their feelings of loss, and it is healthy to share your thoughts at this time,” said Quinlan. “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 or displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased.

“The holiday season can magnify feelings of loss and sadness,” she continued. “This is not a sign of regression or poor management of grief; absence of the loved one will cause pain and distressing feelings.”

Allowing emotions to be expressed is helpful, she went on. “Anticipation of the holidays can create more stress than the holidays themselves. Being prepared can help you deal with these feelings. On the other hand, the holidays may also 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.”

The oncology social worker suggests undertaking daily journaling for the holiday season.

“This is a way of disclosing your thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative. Devoting 20 minutes a day for several days of the week to this activity can help you process your emotions and counteracts the effects of the stress,” said Quinlan. “It is normal to forget the grief for a moment and simply let yourself experience the magic of the season. The grateful heart experiences much joy, and as we are gathered with loved ones, we can be grateful for all persons in our lives — past, present, and future.”

If you have experienced prolonged grief and it is interfering with your ability to function, it may be helpful for you to seek out a counselor who offers bereavement counseling. Professional bereavement counselors can offer support and guidance throughout the grieving process and help you manage any distressing feelings that you may be experiencing.