We’re now at the point where Christmas is inescapable.
We’ve had holiday music since October, decorations in streets and stores since November and seasonal television and newspaper ads for what feels like forever.
For people who are grieving, all that holiday glitter and gladness heightens the tangible feeling of sorrow unique to bereavement, local experts said.
We asked professionals who work every day with people struggling with loss to explain the impact of the season, and to suggest ways to soften the misery and find out how others can help, too.
It’s easy to understand why the holidays make grieving worse. The holidays are tied to family tradition, the joy of giving and receiving presents and the delightful onslaught of comfort food.
There’s pressure to buck up.
“The holidays can cause a great deal of anxiety, said Fran Coan-Meredith, spiritual and grief counselor for Agrace Hospice and Palliative Care. “Everyone around them is so happy and cheerful.”
Technology makes the season worse.
“With social media, now you’re getting the highlights of other people’s lives,” said Tracy Douglas, therapist with Associates in Psychotherapy, Janesville.
“To them (the grieving) it looks like this is the way everybody’s lives are going. But it’s not a full representation.”
But the photos of family and friends together, the activities others are planning or doing, can increase their sense of loss and loneliness.
“There’s so much shame in feeling alone,” Douglas said.
You’re doing it wrong
Often there’s also the pressure to grieve in a certain way or be done grieving in a certain time frame.
Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s famous book, “On Death and Dying,” laid out the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
That’s a good framework, but it doesn’t always work that way, counselors said.
“Grief is a highly individualized experience for each person,” Douglas said. “Sometime people feel, ‘I shouldn’t be grieving this long,’ or ‘I’m supposed to be happy.’ But it’s so much more of a process, and it changes as time changes.”
Coan-Meredith echoed those sentiments.
“Grief is different each and every day,” Coan-Meredith said.
Rituals can help
Holidays are full of traditions.
Traditions and rituals can help you make sense of the world.
Rituals, in particular, provide structure, stability and give the bereaved a way to acknowledge and honor a loss, Douglas said.
That ritual could be as simple as looking at photos of a loved one and going on a walk.
“Whatever best suits you,” Douglas said.
It’s about “meaning making” around the loss, Douglas said.
For the rest of us
The Rev. Bob Groth, a chaplain with SSM Health at Home, encourages grieving people to consider “changing the way they do their celebrations.”
It won’t make the pain go away, but it might make it less acute during the first holiday without the loved one.
“It’s ideal if the whole family is involved in the decision,” Groth said. “Listen to them (the bereaved), involve them in any changes.”
The new tradition could include a new way to honor the loved one who is gone,” Groth said.
For the rest of us, that means not saying, “Yes, but we’ve always done it this way.”
For the grieving
The lead up to Christmas itself is often worse and more anxiety-ridden than the day itself, therapists said.
Still, Coan-Meredith suggests having a plan and a back-up plan.
For example, perhaps your plan is to go to church and then to a family dinner. But when you wake up in the morning, you’re not in the mood for so much.
Maybe you go to church and then have dessert with the family.
Also, if you’re going to an event, consider driving yourself rather than going with others. That way, if decide you want to leave, you can do so without having to explain yourself.
Don’t be afraid to set boundaries to support your mental health.
“Give yourself permission to say no,” Douglas said.
For the rest of us
Give people a chance to talk about their loved one.
“I think that 90 percent of people are talkers, and 10 percent are listeners,” Groth said.
Let people talk and listen—as opposed to thinking about what to say next.
In our culture, people tend to keep those places of deep sadness and pain to themselves, Douglas said.
And it might be difficult for the rest of us to sit with that pain and not try to “fix it.”
Don’t know what to say?
“You could start by saying, ‘Tell me about Harold, I wish I could have known him better,’” Groth said.
Another way to start a conversation is to ask a widow or widower how they meet their spouse.
“Just listen, focus on the bereaved in a nonjudgmental way,” Groth said.
And yes, the grieving person might start to cry. All you’re required to do then is sit with him or her.
Don’t change the subject, and don’t run away.
People want the existence of their loved one confirmed, they want to hear his or her name, Coan-Meredith said.
“Acknowledge the person that died and shared some memories,” she said.
“Those memories will give them (the bereaved) the strength and energy to keep the connection with their loved one alive.”