GUEST AUTHOR: Karen Mendrala
Surviving the holidays…if you’re in the thick of grief, you might wonder how that’s even possible. If you are spinning from the loss of a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, or another important person in your life; if you’re already dealing with anxiety, loneliness, and depression, how do you add “the holidays” to the mix? It can certainly be overwhelming.
The holidays can cause a magnification of any loss, and there is a very good chance your emotions will blindside you during this time of “Christmas cheer.” How do you face the memories of past holidays while still managing to figure out what you will do about this year? How do you handle putting up a Christmas tree, sending out Christmas cards, preparing a meal, or attending a family celebration? It’s not really an option to just skip the holidays altogether. We are surrounded by them.
The mere thought of the holidays can cause dread for anyone experiencing loss. The thought of facing them without a loved one can often even bring about a panic attack! GriefShare, a class offered at our church, enables people to walk the journey of grief together in a small-group setting. They begin with a video of a woman saying, “I just want to go to sleep before Thanksgiving and wake up after New Year’s.” How true!
I vividly remember the year I lost my husband. I was struggling to work through my first holiday without him and I asked my mom, “How do you face the holidays?” She wisely replied, “It’s only one day, so you get through one day at a time.” I’ve found in my own personal journey this philosophy is helpful not only for the holidays but for every day.
So, what are some practical real-life ways to face grief in the midst of the holiday season? Here are a few important ones:
- First and foremost, there’s One who will be with you through all of it. He promises us several times in the Bible that He will never leave nor forsake us. (Deut 31:6; Joshua 1:9 and Matthew 28:20)
- Recognize that the holidays are going to be tough. Acknowledge their impact on you in every way: emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself. Think through your holidays. What traditions and activities are meaningful and important enough to continue? Visualize how you will accomplish that. Who can you call to help you when you are struggling? What might need to be taken off your to-do list because it’s too painful or you’re just not ready to face it?
- On your list of activities that you’ve chosen to keep, which ones might cause the most emotional pain and therefore be the most difficult to get through? Understand that while careful preparation will not keep you from being blindsided by emotions, it may give you the ability to give yourself grace when they come.
- One of the counselors in GriefShare says, “We hear ourselves talking in our heads more than anyone else,” so have a Bible verse ready to use to “self-talk” through difficult moments, such as Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” or Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you…I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
- GriefShare suggests writing a “Grief Letter.” This can be a perfect way for you to help others in your life understand what you are going through. They may want to know how you are doing and how they can help. In your letter:
– Describe your experiences and your feelings in an honest manner.
– Describe what they might expect from you (tears, anger, despair, etc.). You don’t know how you’ll react at the time; there are many ups and downs. However, if you can communicate your thoughts it is helpful for them in better understanding you.
– Let them know what you find comforting to discuss and what’s not helpful at this time.
– Tell them your tears are a normal part of your grief process and nothing to be afraid of. I love what author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “We grieve deeply because we loved deeply.” It’s OK to cry.
– List some specific and practical ways in which friends and family can help you. Perhaps your loved one was the one who carried in the tree and set it up. You want a tree but can’t face that part, so maybe that means someone can do that for you. Maybe you need help shopping or wrapping or placing decorations in the house. Don’t be shy. The people you are writing to love you and want to help you.
Sometimes people just don’t have a clue as to what to expect or what to do for you. Or perhaps they are so caught up in their own holiday plans that they haven’t realized what this time might be like for you. Sometimes they may be afraid to bring up your lost loved one for fear of causing you pain, not realizing it may help and comfort you to talk about him or her. Help them understand. Good communication is such a blessing to everyone!
- Keep a journal. This is a personal, structured time between you and God to reflect, process, and share your deepest fears, hurts, and desires with Him. It helps to sort through what’s going on and how you’re feeling about some tough situations and, in general, it can assist you in dealing with pent-up emotions. I always say it helps to get things out of your mind so they don’t spin until they are out of control. Journaling is a good way to help with this (as is an honest visit with a good and trusted friend, pastor, or counselor).
– Think about decorations, Christmas cards, gifts, meals, family time, Christmas parties, and other social events.
– Decide how you might respond to invitations. Feel free to reply with “I’ll try to make it,” or, “I may need to leave suddenly. If that happens, please don’t take offense.”
– You might need time alone. Alert family or friends that you might need to disappear for a few minutes or maybe even hours. This is normal and okay.
Any of these are a good way to clear out your mind.
Surviving the holidays will be hard. There will be emotional triggers from sights, sounds, smells, songs, and activities. When you’re dealing with anxiety or struggling to process your grief, a plan will help you feel less overwhelmed and will give you coping strategies for those rough seasons. It won’t fix the difficult tasks you face, but it can give you hope and help you get through them.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”