Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., MSS
Gearing up for holiday spirit is not easy these days. Unemployment numbers have barely declined, more adult children are living at home, and debts are rising. Added to this economic pressure is the other daunting holiday task–dealing with your family. Even if your family is filled with love and support, facing the holidays when you are struggling with grief and loss can be a challenge.
Mourning can come in many forms, and it is not useful to compare which kinds of losses are worse. Perhaps a loved one died. The person in the seat where your partner, child or parent usually sat seems out of place, to have broken the family rituals. That was Dad’s seat, you think. Or maybe you are in mourning over the ailing health or injury in a loved one or you. Divorce and separation count, too, as losses. So do lay-offs or foreclosures. It is not a contest of who hurts more. A loss is a loss.
Regardless of the details of your grief it’s normal to be in a fog, a slump, a going-mad feeling. You notice that the world moved on, the little nieces and nephews are now old enough to sneak candy, you want to smile, but your mind and heart are not working well. You wonder why your feelings are both dulled and intense and why those dark circles under your eyes won’t go away.
I’ve been both a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker for a long time, and the increase in appointments from November to January has always gotten to me. I’m moved by the emotional pain that my clients have to endure in general. But the holidays make it worse. The cheery music and decorations, the ads on television for watches, sweaters, rings and earrings only seem to remind my clients that once again the season is a mix of family obligations and the usual problems of disappointment, disagreements and disapprovals from them. But to see my clients struggle with on-going family issues and loss at holiday times seems wrong.
I am no stranger to grief, having lost, for example, a mother early and then two step-mothers. And now our daughter is ill. But over the years, I’ve developed some techniques that make the holidays not only easier but, yes, a fun time of joy and gratitude. Here are some tested tips that have worked not only for me but for my clients as well. You don’t have to do all of them—and some may not apply to your situation. Mourning is an unpleasant and often scary experience, and every family develops its own style of managing death, illness and loss according to their comfort zone with uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps these suggestions will spark ideas that fit with you and your family.
1. Do toasts, honors and thanks. Go around the table and have anyone who wants to speak say something funny, heart-warming or appreciative of the deceased. If people are too shy, you could ask them to write down their words on a piece of paper, fold it up, place it in a bowl that you pass around the table and then read or have someone else read out loud. You could also ask everyone to write or say what makes them grateful this year. Or, have a moment of silence or prayer where the family joins hands. One of my clients prepared her Dad’s favorite salad of greens and strawberries and then asked everyone to hold up their forks in honor of him. “Remember how he used to go around the table and take one strawberry out of some of your bowls,” she said. Everyone laughed.
2. Give words of encouragement. During dinner you can also use the same technique of having people say or write positive words of encouragement or praise to those who are ill, injured, unemployed, in mourning or divorced. For example, one of the families I counseled made a scrap book of kind thoughts, ideas and appreciation for a family member who was going through a divorce. Even children can participate.
3. Bring out the camera and camcorders. Videotape others telling stories about the deceased or saying kind words to the ill or newly single. Take pictures or show old ones. Children often love to be recorded. You’ll be creating new memories and traditions that you can view at the next holiday. “I couldn’t believe how I’d changed in just a year,” one of my clients said when she watched the video from the year before. I thought I’d never feel happy, but here I am, smiling.” Children also love to see how much they’ve changed and grown.
4. Do charitable deeds as a family—especially for charities and causes that pertain to your loss or situation. Giving can bring families closer together and make the grieving person feel less alone. Helping others is great medicine. When Barbara Bush, wife of former U.S. President George Bush, got very depressed after the death of her three year-old daughter Robin, she decided to get involved in charity work. She said the experience healed her. Helping others puts your grief in perspective and builds a network of social connections and the emotional support that has proven to be most valuable in grief management. You and your family can also establish your own intimate network. Ahead of time, go through the closets, the garage and toys to select items to donate. One of my clients established a new tradition after the loss of her husband. She told her children that they would not get any presents unless they gave some things to charity. Pick organizations that mean something to you personally.
5. Get elegant or silly. What you wear can often change your and your family’s attitude. Getting dressed up, especially for the first holiday of your loss, is one way to include and honor your deceased loved one, for example. If your family loathes putting on the good clothes, ask everyone to wear something silly such as a hat that can then easily be removed. When one of my clients said she felt too tired to put on a dress, the family decided that they would come in their most comfortable clothes. Her grandfather came wearing a bathrobe over his tee shirt and sweatpants. They took photos and placed them in an album that they looked at the following year.
6. Ask for help and advice. If you are in mourning for any reason, let others know what you need from them. Most people really don’t know what to say. Grief can make people so uncomfortable that, even if they feel for you, they go silent. Don’t get angry or feel alone if your family doesn’t come through in the exact ways you need. They aren’t mind-readers. Express what would help you by standing up and read your Request List. Perhaps you would like someone to call you on a Saturday night or go with you to the doctor’s or your favorite restaurant. Or maybe you would like others to stop calling you so much.
Asking for advice is a great way to quiet those critical, busy-bodies who always have to put in their two-cents worth. Don’t let these people bring you down. More than likely, they are very uneasy about your situation. After all, illness or accidents, for example, could happen to all of us. Don’t get stuck bristling at their intrusive comments or questions such as: “Aren’t you dating yet?” “He wasn’t such a great catch anyway.” “You look pale.” Instead, co-opt their negativity and know-it-all nature by seeking their recommendations. You’d be surprised at how tongue-tied or even kinder your meddling cousin can get. My client got so fed up with the negative comments from her Aunt Bertha—whom the family called Black-Cloud Bertha, that she mustered her bravery and asked her aunt when precisely she should start dating again, where to meet men, how long to mourn and how soon she could have sex again. Aunt Bertha clammed up really quickly. This approach could garner you some good recommendations, but, more importantly, it can show others that they really don’t know how to solve your problems after all. The key is to ask for help in earnest and without sarcasm.
7. Educate others about grief. When my client’s mother said to her at the Thanksgiving table, “I can’t believe you’re still crying over your divorce,” one of my clients didn’t miss a beat. She said, “I know Sam wasn’t the best husband, but I still feel sad that it didn’t work. Let me tell you what I learned about mourning an unhappy relationship.” She took out some notes that she obtained from self-help books and read them. “By the time I finished, everyone got very quiet. My mom came up to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘I didn’t realize.’” Take charge by teaching others. It will lessen your anger and disappointment in your family.
Finally, don’t be afraid to have solemn or sad moments at the holidays. Shared grief can bring people closer. None of these suggestions are easy, but you deserve and need the emotional support. I wish you a very happy, wise and brave holiday season.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com . Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, “The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie.” Follow Dr. Wish on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.