How to handle Christmas after loss
It's Christmas, and it's supposed to be a happy time. But it's not.
The first Christmas is the hardest when it comes to dealing with the loss of a loved one, but the holidays can be rough in general when it comes to grieving at any stage. It seems like the whole season becomes about girding yourself against the grief, keeping your head down and just getting through it until January.
But some local grief experts say it doesn't have to be this way.
"We're all dealing with losses around the holidays," said Carl G. Hindy, a Nashua-based therapist, "because around the holidays we're all thinking of holidays past and the people who aren't with us this year and the people who were a part of the family. And I think that the holidays being about family, it should also be about sort of embracing and in a sense celebrating these people that we've lost.
"What strikes me about the whole matter of grief during the holidays," he continued, "is that (those grieving) need to embrace the grief, not try to avoid it. Deal with it, express it, talk about it, rather than trying to avoid it or being anxious or fearful of it."
Hindy said, instead of avoiding thoughts of the lost loved one, embrace them. He suggests bringing out old movies and pictures and sharing memories with family members.
In fact, said Lee Maher, bereavement coordinator at Rockingham VNA and Hospice in Derry, it might be helpful to memorialize the person in a special way, whether it's lighting a candle at a church or donating money in the lost loved one's name.
"That person is still with you, they're still in your heart, just not physically there," Maher said. "You still have a relationship with them, so don't work hard at trying to forget; work hard at trying to incorporate them into the day somehow."
Oftentimes people who are grieving at the holidays believe that if they talk about the person who's died, they will spoil the holidays for everyone else. As a result, Hindy said, they suppress their emotions and wind up tense, quiet and sad. Not only is that not good for the person who's grieving, it's not good for other people, he said.
"Rather than run from it, break out the photo albums, break out all the old slides and Super 8 movies," Hindy said. "Let's look at all this stuff and laugh and cry about it together and really bond over the holidays, rather than stiffly sit back in what might seem like a kind of fear of grieving.
"You're not ruining the holidays by doing that; you are really bonding with your family in a more meaningful way. And everyone will leave thinking that was really a special holiday. They're not going to leave thinking, 'You ruined our holiday.'?"
Along the same lines, Maher suggests for the person who is grieving to be honest about what he or she can and can't do.
"If you were the one that always hosted (a Christmas get-together), it's OK to tell your family, 'I'm not going to do it this year,'?" she said. "Maybe giving up sending out Christmas cards this year; that's OK. Maybe you've always spent time wrapping gifts, but you may find it too burdensome this year; that's OK. Use gift bags. Shopping can be difficult. Maybe get gift certificates instead. Don't put yourself through that.
"It's OK to tell people you want to do things differently. It's OK to let family know, 'I need a change.'?"
It may be helpful to make other changes, Maher said, from altering the holiday menu to starting new traditions.
"Some traditions lose their joy or end with the death, so sometimes you need to start new traditions," she said. "It is OK to change a tradition. It's OK to tell your family, 'I'm just not up to doing it that way this year.'?"
She also said it's OK to be happy at Christmas after the loss of a loved one.
"The first one is probably going to be the worst," she said. "People always say they are dreading the holidays. But afterwards they often say to me, 'You know, Christmas Day was not that bad. It was more the anticipation ... that when they actually arrived (at a family gathering), they watched a grandchild open a package and that brought them joy that they didn't anticipate.
"Go with whatever happens," Maher advised. "If there is a moment of joy, take it.
"Don't feel guilty. I think people feel like, 'I'm supposed to be in mourning; I can't enjoy moments.' You can enjoy moments. It's OK."