Bereavement during the holidays: 5 tips on coping with grief

December 21, 2012 | by Hiu Chung So

The loss of a loved one is extraordinarily painful regardless of the time of year, but the grief can seem almost impossible to bear during the holidays. Whether the death was unexpected or the result of a long illness such as cancer, those left behind aren't focused on enjoying the holidays – they simply want to get through them.

Grief during holidays

To do so, they must acknowledge that intense grief is normal, while also keeping at least part of their mind on recovery, said Jeanelle Folbrecht, Ph.D., interim director of psychology at City of Hope’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine.

“The holidays, especially the first one after a patient’s death, can be extra tough for the grievers since it brings to mind the once-shared traditions that are permanently changed,” Folbrecht said.

Grief-stricken loved ones will always feel an extra sense of sadness and loss during the holidays, Folbrecht said, but emotions that become overwhelming can lead to long-term, disabling depression. She offers the following advice on how to mourn without being controlled by the associated grief.

  • Grieve together. “There is a tendency for those grieving to withdraw from social interactions to mourn alone,” Folbrecht said. “But by sharing this experience with others, they will know that they are not alone in this ordeal and are better able to share, and ultimately work through, their feelings.”
  • Be prepared for interactions. “Mourners may also avoid socializing because they are afraid to burden others with their grief, a feeling that is amplified over the holidays since they may meet people they do not regularly see throughout the year,” Folbrecht said. To address that, Folbrecht suggests mentally preparing with how much (or little) they want to disclose about the situation to various social circles. Finally, mourners should be not be afraid to say "no" or "later" if the situation becomes too overwhelming.
  • Consider your traditions. One reason the holidays can intensify sadness is because cherished activities become a source of pain. Rather than focus on the loss, Folbrecht suggests mourners should examine what traditions they want to keep and practice to remember their loved ones. "Some traditions may be difficult to continue after the loss, so loved ones should consider replacing them with new activities that honors the death while helping loved ones through the grieving process," Folbrecht said.
  • Don't forget self care. “Grieving is a very exhausting process for both the mind and body, so it’s important to take a break for self care,” Folbrecht said. The holidays offer numerous opportunities for mourners to take their minds off bereavement, she added, suggesting that they volunteer at a food and clothing drive, write greeting cards to loved ones or simply check out the festive decorations in their neighborhoods. Activities like exercising, meditating and enjoying a massage will also help reduce the stress of the holidays.
  • Continue honoring commitments, when possible. In addition to grieving with others, Folbrecht advised, mourners should make an effort to continue with everyday activities, whether casual get-togethers, religious functions or planned excursions, when it is comfortable to do so. Not only do such activities help re-establish a sense of normalcy after a loved one’s death, they reinforce the social safety net that will be needed during moments of overwhelming grief.

And when the grief becomes too much to bear or starts interfering with daily functioning, Folbrecht said, mourners must immediately contact a mental health professional.

“For the loved ones of those treated at City of Hope, the staff at the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center can connect them with the needed resources to help them through their bereavement,” Folbrecht said.

Bereavement resources, support and communities are also available at American Cancer Society, Cancer.net and CancerCare websites, among others.

The most important lesson: Don’t try to grieve alone and ask for support when needed.

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