By Betty Ann Rutledge

The holiday season – with its inevitable reminders of the empty spaces in our families – is a good time to go “back to the basics” of what we know about grief.

Coping with the holidays begins for many immediately after Labour Day and continues through to January. For all of us, regardless of the spiritual or cultural traditions we observe, we are constantly bombarded with the daily messages of joy, celebration, food, festivity and the gathering together of family and friends that signifies “the holiday season”. Is it just me, or do you find that those card store displays of ornaments and gifts appear earlier every year? For the bereaved, these messages and images, previously enjoyed and anticipated, may now provoke anxiety, loneliness, sadness, stress and a profound sense of renewed pain over the loss of our loved ones.

We must learn how to experience and navigate these holidays and special occasions with the “new normal” of learning to living with our grief.

What we know about grief is that everyone grieves uniquely. We also know that there are some common manifestations of grief that are often shared no matter what kind of loss is experienced. It may be helpful to spend some time reflecting on the following questions:

  • How and what did I first learn about coping with loss?
  • What is my primary style of coping now?
  • What impacts my grief?
  • What helps me when I am in a “hit of grief”?

It’s also important to remember that grief affects us at all levels of our beings: Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual, Social, and Sexual.

Is that headache an indication that you are struggling with something “just below the surface” that needs space and time to be explored?
When you come home and put your keys in the fridge and milk in the cupboard, is that mental confusion a sign that you are distracted by an aspect of your grief that longs for expression?
What can you do to comfort yourself when those deep, painful waves of sorrow feel like they are literally “breaking your heart”?
How are your relationships with family, friends and co-workers being impacted by your grief?

Your fatigue, frustration, sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, disorganization & despair are all a normal part of grieving. Remember:

  • Grief is a process, a journey
  • Give yourself permission to ask for what you need
  • Seek support, avoid prolonged periods of isolation
  • Balance in everything is good – so also make sure you have time alone for quiet reflection
  • Your feelings are a natural expression of your love and attachment to your family member who has died – try not to judge any feeling as right or wrong
  • Listen to yourself – pay attention to the signals from your body, mind, heart and spirit
  • Be gentle with yourself – avoid harsh criticism or high expectations. Patience, compassion and loving-kindness with yourself are more important than ever.
  • Some say that a grief shared is lessened. Connecting with others who are bereaved may be helpful at this time. Consider attending a monthly bereavement support night, posting a message on the website, or attending the Tree of Light memorial event. For more information about coping with the holidays, see our article about the subject.

My wish for all of us is that we have the time, space and support needed to allow us to embrace the memories of our loved ones. Memories that can be both painful and joyful. As I wish you and your family peace during this difficult time of year, I hope that these tips are tremendously helpful in your healing process.