Coping with Holiday Grief

While the holiday season brings shopping, family reunions and food, it can also be a particularly difficult period of deep mourning for those who have lost a loved one. Though grief is not seasonal, it is often magnified during the holiday season, when families gather, tradition is honored and moments of reflection can draw up a well of memories of those we have lost.

"If we have been lucky, throughout our lives the holidays have been a socially sanctioned retreat from the demands of our work and public lives to spend time with family and loved ones.  When we lose a loved one, the holidays accentuate the loudness of their absence and can feel like an anniversary of our loss," said Dr. Wendi Williams, a psychologist and professor of counseling at Long Island University- Brooklyn.

And while grief may come triple-fold during this time of year, Williams believes the wave of emotions is not only normal, it is necessary, particularly in the Black community, where grief and depression are sometimes taboo. "Digestion of complicated emotional experiences helps us to release aspects of our lives that hold us back from our full expression of our lives. While I do not believe in a monolithic black community identity, I do think a history of race-based trauma and desensitization make it difficult for us to process our experience of being human. Grief and loss are a part of that, just as are love and birth. We cheat ourselves our humanity and, quite frankly, our loved ones of being honored through our grief, when we do not acknowledge the impact of their loss on us," said Williams.

"Time heals" is an old adage that often gets repeated during times of mourning. But it is important to remember that everyone's time is different, and everyone's process of loss is as well. There are mechanisms for coping with grief that can help. I have dealt with many bouts of grief due to loss of loved ones during this time, and have learned that facing those feelings, at my own pace, and on my own time, has ultimately opened parts of myself that have deepened my level of love and connection to those still in my life. The support and counsel of others, can also play an immeasurable role in the healing process.

"Once connecting with the truth of grief, it will be important to identify trusted others that one can talk to and feel supported by. These persons should be chosen for their ability to prioritize your need for support and to be heard over their need to insert an opinion or judgment that is not helpful. Persons that give unsolicited advice or make requests of you in the midst of your mourning are not appropriate supports and should be reconsidered for supports that can be truly available to support you," says Dr. Williams. She recommends a counselor, clergy person, or grief support group that can provide non-biased support.

Little ones are also deeply affected by death, and may not know, particularly during the holiday season when families gather, how to process the idea of death. Finding ways to not only support, but also encourage them to embrace their own emotions during that time, is critical.

"Children need to be told the truth about the presence and loss of someone loved.  It should be age appropriate and permit them the ability to process their own feelings without having to be responsible for the emotional reactions of the adults in their lives," said Dr. Williams. She recommends sharing stories by children authors that have paired with mental health professionals to deal with the topic of loss and grief, as well as grief counselors that may use biblio-therapy and/or play therapy to connect young people with their loss and the feelings associated with it.

And while grieving often focuses on the sensation and concept of loss, there can also be moments of clarity and overwhelming gratitude for having known those we loved to begin with. This is perhaps the most bittersweet part of loss.

Said Williams, "Channeling grief and feelings of loss into something positive can happen through our acknowledgement of gratitude for having had this person in our lives. Think about what their presence in your life has meant to you and become an alchemist, turning the pain of loss into gold.  They are gone and you are still here. What will you do with the life that you are still able to live? What can you contribute, create, cultivate in this world now? In their name, inspired by their love for you or yours for them, whether it was complicated or easy; what was exchanged between you and this person was meaningful enough to you that their loss causes you grief. Honor that, honor them, honor you."