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How to Deal with Grief and Loss During the Holidays

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Tips For Dealing With Grief During Holidays
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How to Deal with Grief and Loss During the Holidays

December 06, 2018

The holidays can be a magical time, filled with gratitude, thoughtful gifts and family togetherness. But when a loved one passes away around the holiday season, or really at any time of year, once-beloved traditions can become painful and it may be difficult to enjoy any aspect of the season or even cope with magnified grief.

Holiday cookies and cinnamon

Whether you’re a caregiver who has recently lost a parent or other loved one, or you’re trying to help a senior in your life deal with the loss of a spouse, sibling or friend – confronting grief and trying to find constructive ways to deal with it can help you get through the pain. And it’s OK to step away from certain traditions for a year or two if they’re just too hard to face without the lost loved one. Sometimes establishing new traditions can be healing for all involved. Here are some tips for dealing with grief as the holidays approach.

Tips for Dealing with Grief as a Caregiver Grieving the Loss of Your Loved One

The loved one you lost, whether it’s a parent, aunt or uncle, or even older friend, probably played an important part in the holiday celebrations and traditions you’ve enjoyed throughout your life. Trying to push aside your grief entirely and forge ahead with the same traditions for everyone else’s sake is unlikely to help you feel better. Doing so may actually make coping with daily life feel more overwhelming. Instead, consider these strategies for dealing with your emotional stress while still retaining some holiday joy for your family.

1. Start some new traditions. While you certainly don’t have to give up all your beloved family holiday traditions, and shouldn’t, certain changes may help you cope. Try a change of location for your family meal or celebration, like switching host houses or setting out on a holiday getaway with your loved ones. If mom always made gingerbread, try a butter cookie recipe with your children. If dad read “Twas The Night Before Christmas” to the grandchildren each year, start a new story tradition by reading “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Polar Express.” The sentiment will remain, but you won’t feel like you’re trying to replace your lost loved one.

2. Honor your loved one. Whether or not you try to push aside your grief, memories and a feeling of loss will remain. Instead of ignoring your grief, find ways to celebrate your loved one’s legacy during the holidays. Buy a special ornament that reminds you of your loved one or hang one of their old favorites on your tree. Make their famous recipe for your family dinner. Create a memory book or share favorite stories with each other. Donate to or volunteer with their favorite charitable organization. And, if you’re a spiritual person, ask for them to be mentioned in your congregation’s holiday prayers.

3. Seek support. Friends and family can be a great resource, but many times they’re also dealing with the same loss in their own ways. Don’t be afraid to visit grief support groups or seek counseling if your feelings of loss seem too hard to bear. Camaraderie can play a big part in healing, and you may learn some strategies you haven’t thought of that can help you and your family move forward. Whether you’re dealing with loss, or just day-to-day caregiver stress around the holidays, finding a support system and taking time for self-care are essential.

How to Help a Loved One Deal with the Loss of a Spouse, Sibling or Friend

When a senior loses a spouse, sibling or friend, they’re often grieving a relationship that has been present for a large part of their lives, sometimes as long as they can remember. That person is inextricably tied to all of their holiday memories and everything they treasure about the celebrations. A loss this significant can leave seniors prone to depression, withdrawal from other family members and favorite activities, and disruptions in sleeping, eating and self-care. A broken heart has even been linked to reduced life expectancy. And their feelings of grief and loss can be accentuated by holiday traditions. So how can you help your loved one cope?

1. Celebrate a new way. As with a caregiver grieving a loved one, a change of scenery may do seniors missing spouses, siblings or friends some good. Maybe that means hosting dinner at your house if they always hosted. Or perhaps you can bring them along on a short trip to a scenic destination. If they have grandchildren, encourage them to engage in some of the kids’ favorite activities like watching a holiday movie, sharing hot chocolate and cookies, or decorating the tree together. Introduce them to non-traditional recipes you think they’d enjoy at the holiday table. 

2. Help them honor the one they lost. Create an online tribute or memory book together or encourage them to share favorite memories and funny or lighthearted stories. If they’re spiritual, bring them to church and pray together or light a candle in their loved one’s memory. Involve them in family traditions to keep the person’s memory alive – like hanging a photo ornament or favorite decoration.

3. Reach out to professionals, as needed. If you’re worried about grief’s deep psychological or physical impacts on your loved one’s life, talk to their doctor, a professional grief counselor or someone else experienced in dealing with senior loss to see what help they might be able to provide. 

4. Help them build a community. Grief can lead to isolation, and isolation is increasingly dangerous to mental and physical health as people get older. Encourage them to spend time with other family members and friends or restart an old hobby, like bowling, card games or socials at the local senior center. And, if they’re now living alone, consider their options for senior living communities, like Elmcroft, which offer lots of opportunities for activities and socialization.

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