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How Can I Handle My Grief During the Holidays?

It's easy to feel isolated during the holiday season when you've lost a loved one. Everyone else seems so happy when you feel so sad.

"It's a tough situation for people" says Dale G. Larson, professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California. "The key is to acknowledge that you have changed and that the holidays aren't going to be the same. It's important to know that from the outset."

David Kessler, a Los Angeles-based expert on grief and loss who maintains a Web site called grief.com and has collaborated with the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on books about death and dying, explains that "Grief is the internal feelings we have, while mourning is an external process. One of the ways we help work through our grief is to externalize it."

Looking for ways to openly acknowledge your grief during the holidays may help you weather them, and perhaps even find joy. (Kessler is an advisor to Tributes.com, a Web site at which people can set up memorials to those they've lost free of charge, access resources about coping with grief, and connect with others who are grieving.)

Here are some suggestions from Larson and Kessler for managing grief during these emotion-filled holiday weeks.

- Give yourself permission to have pleasure. "That's a tough assignment sometimes," Larson says. "Some people feel guilty to have joy or pleasure" when they're mourning. "But you should honor your loved one by allowing joy. They would want that. It doesn't weaken your connection."

- Include the deceased in your conversations and other activities. "Look for excuses to talk about this person you've lost, in ways that honor them. Show people you're okay talking about him if you want to. Go through photos, videos. Have a stocking for him if that's in keeping with your tradition," Larson suggests. "It's a matter of having your loved one involved in ritual. You have to embrace that that's how it's going to be from now on."

- Share your sentiments: "At Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, ask 'Can we start with a prayer for the one who died?'" Kessler suggests. ""Light a candle. Go around the table and have everyone share a favorite memory." If folks at the table aren't so inclined, find a private moment to say that prayer or otherwise honor that memory.

- Develop a Plan A and Plan B: "Let Plan A be 'I'm going to go to Thanksgiving dinner,'" Kessler offers. "Plan B can say that, 'If it's too rough, too hard to be with everyone, I'm going to stay home and watch his favorite movie, take a walk through a favorite place of ours. I'm going to give in to grief if it overwhelms me.'" Kessler says that when people go into holiday events with a Plan A and a Plan B, "They usually make it through dinner. Without Plan B, they feel only emptiness. With Plan B, they feel sadness but not emptiness."

- Cancel Christmas: "Many find comfort in the holidays, the routine, the deep spiritual connection," Kessler says. "But if it's too hard for you this year, it's really okay to cancel a holiday." Kessler cites the experience of the actor Anthony Perkins's family after Perkins died. "The first Christmas, they decided to go on with Christmas, not matter what," he says. "But the following year they looked back on that and felt it had been painful and mechanical and hadn't allowed for their grief. So they canceled Christmas the second year." Taking a year off, Kessler explains, lets you and your family "go through your feelings without pressure to be joyful and fun." Starting the third year after Hopkins's death, Kessler adds, his family was able to "create a new Christmas."

- Seek a sympathetic ear: "If you feel you're not able to function, to find balance, to find any distance from the pain, seek help," Larson advises. "Find a grief support group, where you'll find instant empathy from people who have suffered similar losses." Don't like groups? Look for an individual counselor. Or, he suggests, "call your local hospice program and see if they have a support program that you can just drop in on for the holidays."

Are you preparing for holidays having lost someone you love? What are your plans for honoring his or her memory and maintaining your own well-being during the next few months?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 24, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Life's Big Questions  
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Comments

A common question asked by those mourning a loved one or struggling to make sense of other losses is, "How can I get through the holidays?" There is no single answer of what one should or shouldn't do. Hospice Foundation of America offers one guiding principle: do what is comfortable.

HFA provides resources for those struggling with grief during the holidays on our website, http://www.hospicefoundation.org/griefAndLoss/holidayHope.asp

Posted by: KristaRenenger | October 24, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Two years ago, we lost our mother and my childern's grandmother on New Years day. The holidays were special for my mom, and my kids loved to spend the holidays with her when they could. I've determined that the best way to celebrate each new year going foward was to remember mom, and plan our year with thoughts towards what she would have been proud of our doing. It's hard, when a loved one passes away during the holidays - that day or that time changes for you. You have to believe that your loved one would want you to go on living and enjoy the season without them. Remember them, and remember those times that they brought joy into your life during that period.

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | October 24, 2008 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the article. I have thought a lot about what Thanksgiving and Xmas will be like, having lost my daughter this year. Luckily family is close by to help with the festivities and to lean on.
Seeing the "Cancel Christmas" Idea intrigued me...... is that alright? Won't people be upset? Is the holiday about me or everyone?

Posted by: kkneedham | October 25, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Excellent, informative article. As a widow of almost five years, I can attest to the fact that the holidays, anniversaries, birthdays are very difficult, especially the first of those days after loss. With time, I've found it easier to cope. It is an individual process and we have to figure out what works best for each of us. There is no right or wrong way to deal with grief. It can be messy, uncontrolled and unplanned, but, we can also find joy again in living. Cut yourself some slack and if you don't feel up to the holidays, do something that brings you a measure of joy or comfort. http://www.ajourneywelltaken.com

Posted by: elainewilliams1 | October 26, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I have a close friend who lost a child during the holiday season 2 years ago. She has a very difficult time with the holidays ever since but tries her best to muster through for the sake of her remaining children. I'm at a loss as to how to help but just try to be there to talk about her child when she wants. I really feel for her and her family. I'll forward this article to her and maybe that can help.

Posted by: friend4 | October 27, 2008 8:34 PM | Report abuse

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