While many are shopping for holiday gifts, tasty treats and planning festive family and friend events, there are those who cannot enjoy the atmosphere of celebration because their thoughts and feelings dwell on who will not be at the party or dinner and how much they will miss them. In the over thirty two years I have been working as a counselor in private practice with a specialty in illness and loss, I have seen the powerful emotions and physical reactions that people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and socio economic status can experience as they face the holidays without a loved one who has died.
There are many variables that influence a person’s grief reactions. One important element is how recent was the loss? The first year is very hard as people face special events such as holidays, birthdays and anniversaries for the first time without their loved one. As the years go on and people create a history of surviving without the lost one, there often is a softening of the emotional pain and a new reality is created that includes happy memories of the person who died. We never forget the loved one no matter how long ago he or she died. There are some exceptions for those who get stuck in the grieving process and each year feels as though the loss just happened yesterday, including all of the early grief responses. We have learned that a person who feels this way after many years of grieving, is experiencing a complicated grief reaction and may need some professional help to heal.
The age and sex of the griever are other variables in the grieving process. We know that infants feel loss and may respond with loss of appetite, sleeplessness, irritableness, and regressive behavior. Young children up to the age of about six may feel bewildered and abandoned and expect the person who died to re-appear as if by magic. After about six, children can understand the permanence of death and sometimes feel responsible. Children often think they are the center of the universe and something they did or didn’t do caused the person to die. Teens can turn inward or immerse themselves in their peers or their electronic devices i.e. cell phones or computers. Some adults want to talk about their feelings of loss while others chose to grieve privately. Very often women feel more comfortable expressing their emotions, while men tend to feel they must stay in control and continue to function despite the sadness they feel. No one grieving style is correct and we all must learn to appreciate and respect our own and that of others.
I, and my husband Bob, have been leading bereavement groups for over twenty-seven years and invariably the question of what to do over the holidays when one doesn’t feel in the mood or have the energy to create or attend traditional events is brought up. Our answer, as with may grieving questions is, there is no one answer for all and one must make decisions based on what will work the best for them and those around them at this time. For some, creating traditional holidays is comforting, while others need to find a new tradition such as taking a trip to a new place and making new memories. Some people leave an empty chair to honor the person they lost, give a toast and share memories. This can help acknowledge the importance of those who are not with us in body any longer. Whatever one decides to do for the holidays, remember to be gentle with yourself and others healing from a loss. The most important holiday gift is compassion and love.
GIERS provides a no cost monthly bereavement group called The Mourning After. It meets the first Friday of each month at Center Playhouse, 35 South Street in Freehold from 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM. New attendees should call in advance. In addition GIERS also has a no cost Grief Help Line. If members of the community have questions or concerns they can call 732-577-1076, leave a message, and receive a callback from either my husband, Bob Szita, MS, LPC or myself.