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Grief and Loss During the Holidays

Popular songs have been created expressing the joy of the holiday season. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, Jingle Bells and other festive happy songs. These songs, parties and smells of treats baking all enhance the joy this season is supposed to bring. There are lots of people who look forward to this time of year and celebrate with passion and they have the right to do so.

But the holiday season can be particularly difficult for those who have lost a loved one. For those facing the first or many holiday seasons without that loved one can be difficult. For many people the holiday season is a time that will inevitably trigger memories of holiday seasons past, or the season that will never be. In dealing with this time of year it is important to remember the words of Helen Keller: “what we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us”.

The Task of the Mourning Process

Researchers Freeman and Ward have identified five specific tasks associated with the mourning process that need to be accomplished before a bereaved person has successfully resolved the grief associated with the death of a significant other. These are not to be confused with stages of grief but rather represent an action-oriented perspective, on what bereaved persons need to do, not exclusively what they need to feel.

Experience the Reality of the Death. A bereaved person needs to experience the reality of the death and be able to express that reality to others. He or she needs to be able to say definitively, "My wife (husband, partner, family member) died” to self and to others. For some, this may mean touching the deceased body or spending time alone with the deceased before the body is rushed off for funeral and burial arrangements. For others who are in shock or denial immediately following the death, the true realization may come days or weeks later when the activity associated with the funeral subsides and he or she needs to face the empty house.

Tolerate the Emotional Pain. People who are mourning need to experience the emotional pain, anger, resentment, confusion, or other emotions associated with the loss of a significant other. At times, well-intentioned family members ask physicians for tranquilizers to help someone get through the funeral and time immediately following the death. As uncomfortable as family members may be watching the person struggle with sadness, it is a necessary step in the grieving process. Family members and others can help to encourage the grieving person to take care of themselves physically and emotionally. An inability to experience and express difficult emotions contributes to the development of complicated grief.

Convert Present to Past. During the process of mourning as the bereaved reorganizes his or her life around the absence of the deceased, the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased is transformed from a relationship in the present to a relationship of memory. This is why it is important for the bereaved to have ample opportunity to talk about the deceased and share memories. As they talk about their loved ones they often make a conscious or unconscious transition from speaking in the past tense. “We are” becomes “we were”, signifying the person is moving along with this task.

Develop a New Sense of Identity. Part of the process of reorganizing life in the absence of the deceased involves the bereaved beginning to see himself or herself in a new light. As the bereaved takes on new activities or develops new relationships that were not part of the shared life with the deceased, he or she will develop a strengthened sense of personal, individual identity. For example, a recent widow may discover she needs to find employment following the death of her spouse to meet financial demands supporting herself. Her new identity as a worker strengthens her sense of individuality. A recent widower may find he has to learn how to cook, shop for groceries, or do laundry, creating a sense of independence and mastery he did not have before. Actively seeking new and fulfilling roles following another’s death is an important part of active grief work.

Relate the Loss to a Context of Meaning. The last task identified by Freeman and Ward is that of relating the experience of loss through the death of a loved one to a greater context of meaning. It is the philosophical and spiritual answer to the question of “why” the loved one died, leaving the bereaved alone. Accepting that a supreme being has not singled out the bereaved or punishment and suffering by causing a loved one’s death or that the deceased did not willfully abandon the deceased helps move the bereaved into the real acceptance of the death.

The Nature and Value of Rituals

A ritual is an outward gesture or action that expresses, often symbolically, an inner human reality. This reality can include what one thinks and feels about the present as well as the future. A ritual can be a powerful means of dealing with significant life transitions. It can help give expression to what’s happening at a critical juncture of a persons or family’s life, whether that’s expressed alone or in a group. Rituals in and of themselves can help people take steps forward. Creating rituals during the holidays is a way to honor the loved ones you are missing. They do not just describe a transition, they are a transition, or at least one part of that transition. Such rituals not only suggest that healing is possible, but they act as healing agents, fostering growth in themselves.

Grief is a natural, active process during which we experience intense feelings, revisit memories, and adjust to life without the loved one. As you move through your grief, remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, no timetable, and the ups and downs during grieving can be unpredictable. Each person grieves in his or her own way and in his or her own time.

Do not isolate yourself. It is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to friends and family who have had the same experience or seek out a support group and learn how others are dealing with their own sense of loss. This gives you additional support and understanding. It also gives you a reason to understand that you will move through your grief, just as others have.

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