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Grieving during the holidays

November 25, 2014

The anticipation of the upcoming holidays can create more stress than the holidays themselves, especially for someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one. Yet, for some, this special time of year may also offer a reprieve from sad feelings. They may find themselves caught up in the moment as they experience the joy of family and friends around them.

Taking care of yourself

"Planning for the approaching holidays is the first step in developing your coping strategy. 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," said Marlene Quinlan LICSW, oncology social worker, Baystate Regional Cancer Program.

"Holiday preparations, traditions, and family time may all feel less than normal. It is important to remember that your emotions and energy level are strongly connected. So, get plenty of rest and pay attention to healthy eating. Plan self-care activities that will feed your mind, body and spirit," she added.

The longtime social worker noted when preparing for the holidays, include activities 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.

Channeling Gratitude

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Quinlan suggests turning to feelings of gratitude.

"Gratitude is a very healing emotion. As an oncology social worker, I recommend that individuals practice a gratitude-centering exercise on a daily basis," said Quinlan.

She suggests beginning by focusing on gratitude for the first 20 minutes of the day. Then, at the end of 20 minutes, take one “gratitude” with you for the day.

Throughout the remainder of the day, if you notice that you are having distressing or sad thoughts, shift your thinking to the pre-selected gratitude, which may help you manage your emotions during the holidays.

Reducing stress

Don’t let the stress of gift-giving get you down.

"Shop early. Order by catalog or online, or consider a donation to a worthy cause and limit buying to one or two special people," Quinlan suggested.

The Baystate social worker said to consider the fact that stores are filled with holiday cheer and greetings. You may want to be prepared for your emotional reaction, as well as having a greeting response that you are comfortable using.

"It is stressful to experience the holidays without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them. Consider finding a way of formally remembering your deceased loved one, such as serving his or her favorite dessert and then reflecting on the joy that it brought to them in the past. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity like looking at old photo albums, or making or displaying a special decoration with significant ties to the deceased," she added.

Don’t be afraid to express your emotions, which can be very helpful, noted the social worker, who suggested 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 stress," Quinlan said.

Managing expectations

Equally challenging during the holiday season is the difficulty of maintaining traditions and feeling joyful when you are caring from someone who is seriously ill.

According to Patricia Cocozza, hospice bereavement chaplain at Baystate Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice in Springfield, doing everything the way you always did for the holidays may not be realistic. She suggests discussing with the person who is ill what traditions they would most like to focus on.

"Do they want to purchase presents, have a family gathering, or get a Christmas tree? Discuss the simplest ways to accomplish their wishes. Maybe it’s giving a gift card instead of shopping for the perfect gift. Or, instead of working for hours on the holiday meal for everyone, delegate to others certain dishes they can bring," Cocozza said.

Entertaining others can be exhausting for both the caregiver and patient.

"Explain to family and friends that their visits must be limited in time. Also, schedule visits on different days or times so everyone doesn’t come at once," said Cocozza. "Remember, despite the emphasis on family gatherings and gift-giving portrayed in the media, one of the best and most lasting gifts is the gift of time. Be present to the one who is ill and also take time to be present to your own needs and concerns. The gift of your time and attention will be the gift of love."

If you have experienced prolonged grief and it is interfering with your ability to function, it may be helpful to consider bereavement counseling.