Managing the Holidays

From the Center for Grief Recovery
by Jerry Rothman, MSW, PhD

Holidays Can Be Difficult
No matter what your religion or lack thereof, the holidays can be trying. They stir up memories of the past, evoke powerful feelings and force us to compare our lives to those of some perfect TV family.

Memories of the past are tied to this time of year. Many people have traditions sanctioned by religion, and many also have traditions more secular in nature. Gift giving, taking vacations, sharing of special times or activities – all may have been part of the joy that we had with a lost loved one. Getting through the first season can be nightmarish and the next ones may still be emotionally painful. All of these memories of good times and rituals shared together can raise bittersweet thoughts and feelings.

Not only good times shared, but bad times shared may be dredged up. If we are like many people, the holidays may have been unpleasant for economic or emotional reasons. We may feel guilty that we couldn't have provided better for our son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother.

The holidays are times of great emotional intensity to start with, and a death may build on this foundation and add to the feelings of loss that arise from memories. We may experience a whole range of feelings that are hard for us to tolerate. Sadness is difficult enough, but loneliness, emptiness, helplessness and vulnerability are even harder to manage. What’s worse, these emotions are often considered negative in American society, something to be hidden.

Another reason that the holidays can be disappointing is that we are bombarded with stereotypes of the perfect family experiencing nothing but joy and warmth on a white Christmas. This myth of the perfect family has been commercialized and used to sell mass quantities of merchandise. It is a force to be reckoned with and one we can't escape. We are made to compare the reality of our loss-filled family life with the myth of perfect family closeness that we see on television. This painful comparison is often unsatisfactory to even healthy families, but families who have sustained losses are even further from the mark.

What to Do
There are a good many ways to facilitate getting through difficult periods of time. First, it's important to have a mindset that you are not helpless. We may feel helpless and hopeless, but that doesn't mean we really are. Once you get it firmly established that you can do some things to make life more bearable, you can implement some of the following suggestions:

Express the feelings as they arise. It's not only OK to grieve, but it is important to grieve. Grief is a process that may be painful, but it has healing qualities. Tolerate the difficult emotions and express them to yourself and others. Anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness, vulnerability, helplessness, emptiness and others may all be present. The mourning process can be very painful because of the intensity and range of feelings that arise. It is healthier to let them be and not try to sweep them under the rug.

Having said this, it is also important to add that it's not OK to express these feelings in a way that harms yourself or others. It isn't the feelings themselves that can cause damage; it's what we do with them or how we express them that needs to be monitored. In doing so, be aware of the burden you place on others. You can't ask people to help you beyond their own abilities, and you can't expect friends and relatives to be continuously receptive. We have to be aware of their limits. There is no point in being bitter if they simply can't keep listening and absorbing your grief. Ask from them only what they can give.

Honor the memory of your loved one. Acknowledge their importance to you and create ceremonies that express that awareness. Through thoughts, feelings, traditions and ceremonies you can express some of the grief that you feel and gain some comfort. Rituals may be easier for some of your friends to share, so make use of them. Or you may find comfort in developing new traditions that honor the memory of your loved one. A contribution to charity, a day of volunteering in honor of your memories, or a visit to the grave may be useful.

Plan activities and ways to stay busy (or keep from being too busy). Find the right mixture of activity and freedom from unnecessary stress. You can review your own needs and decide how to plan. If you can't stand the idea of being alone, you could plan activities with others. If you find being alone valuable and your holiday season is usually set at a frantic pace with social obligations, you could reconsider and cancel some of the get-togethers.

Find ways to soothe yourself. When under stress, we need to be willing to indulge ourselves sometimes. We each have differing ways to calm our troubled souls. Think about what you have historically done to take care of yourself. Go ahead and give in to some soothing activities as long as they aren't destructive to yourself or others. For example, if eating is a significant soother, then you may want to let yourself gain a few pounds over the holidays and take off the weight afterwards when the emotional strains are moderated. However, if you have a weight problem, you may find it harmful to your self-esteem to gain weight. You'll have to balance the pros and cons of each method of soothing.

Other Ideas To Think About
Get beyond the myth of a blissful, perfect holiday season. We have to realize that many people are unhappy during this time and they are unhappy for many different reasons. Grief and sadness may intervene and need to be attended to. This isn't unusual or bad. Accept it and deal with it; avoid denying what's going on and you'll be able to use the above techniques to cope.

Express as much emotion as you can, but don’t let yourself become overwhelmed. On the one hand, it is important to express and explore our emotions rather than avoid them. At the same time, a flood of feelings can destroy our equilibrium. Find the balance that fits for you and express whatever you can, while also being kind to yourself through using your own unique soothers.

Individualize all of the advice you get. There are no correct formulas for managing difficult times. Look at the ways you function as an individual and tailor all of the friendly and professional advice so that it fits your situation and your needs. Don't sacrifice your uniqueness to a formula or to what someone else claims to be the right way.

Don’t confuse sadness with depression. Sadness is not the same as depression. And being sad won't make you depressed. Here are some ways they differ:

Can be shared with others
Has humor interspersed
Includes periods of energy
There is light at the end of the tunnel

Isolated, withdrawn
Little or no sense of humor
Tired, deflated
No hope, pessimistic

Similarly, there is a difference between useful, purposeful action when planning satisfying activities and driven, frenzied action:

Purposeful Action
Uses intelligence
Is mindful of our needs
Expresses feelings

Frenzied Action
Unconscious, compulsory
Symbolic or unaware
Avoids feelings; actions take their place

The holidays may not be a time of perfect bliss and your true feelings may be quite different from the mythology that commercial television and the media portray. Give yourself some leeway to be yourself and to accept whatever your feelings tell you. In fact, the holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of the year for mourners and for many other folks. However, you can understand and act so that you are not helpless, and you can creatively cope with whatever the season brings to you. While no one enjoys pain, you can take this opportunity to face your troubles and to work on them in a way that can be creative and meaningful.

Related articles:
Suggestions for Dealing with the Holiday Blues
Handling the Holidays
Helping Your Grieving Parent

Also from the Center for Grief Recovery:
Comfort Quickies: Self Care While Grieving
Grief in the Workplace: An Outline for Helping
The Grief Experience

The Center for Grief Recovery is a full service, non-profit nationwide Counseling Center helping persons who are dealing with emotionally intense experiences such as Grief, Loss, Trauma, Depression or Abuse. You can learn more at

Photo by Ulrik De Wachter/StockXchng


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Comment by Shirley A Mucci on December 2, 2011 at 4:43pm

sometimes I wonder what just happened

Comment by Shirley A Mucci on December 2, 2011 at 4:43pm

sometimes I wonder what just happened

Comment by dee holey on July 1, 2010 at 10:03pm
im just so loss without my sister who was like my mom n best friend n sis all in 1 she just died out of the blue heart attack may 22
n i cry all the time we were always 2gether n i talk 2 her everyday
not i dont know how 2 go on

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