Hope for the holidays - coping with grief during 'the happiest time of the year'

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Imagine your holiday tradition is curling up with your significant other watching “A Christmas Story” as you both sip mugs of hot cocoa while a red and gold decorated tree sits in the corner blinking its twinkling lights on you both. This is something you have been doing for years and in your mind, it's perfect.

But what happens when you are unexpectedly laid off from your job right before Halloween and it looks like you may be spending Christmas in your parents' cramped guestroom because you lost your house?

Maybe you and your partner have decided that you are ready for a baby, but you find that you are incapable of having kids and despite what anyone tells you, you feel like a failure. Or what if you warm up a mug of hot cocoa and sit down to watch “A Christmas Story” as usual, but you realize you will have to do so alone? Suddenly, the holidays don't look merry and bright anymore, but difficult, dark and challenging.

Jim Clifford, retired pastor and hospice chaplain, said loss and grief are universal, but that everyone will experience and express these hardships in unique ways. He also said that the holiday season is universal and equally as varied.

Emotions and memories are stirred up as traditions are celebrated. Someone who spent every Christmas Eve with a loved one singing 'Baby, it's cold outside', may not even be able to hear the song if the other person is not around any longer. That individual may feel angry, resentful, guilty, hurt, or depressed despite the happiness and festivities going on around them.

Or they may hide from everything and seek silence. All of these reactions are normal, natural, necessary, and needed, Clifford said.

But how can someone deal with this pain? Clifford gave several suggestions, but said no one should do anything that isn't helpful to them. Take what responds well with you and use it.

Again, everyone is unique and what works for one may not work for another.

Clifford highlighted 4 'P's; Plan, Permission (to be oneself), Pace (yourself), and Practice (spiritual disciplines).

PLAN

Clifford said that no one has control over loss or the holidays. However, everyone can control how they respond to it. Past changes require future changes. If one has experienced a loss, whether that be a relationship, a job/income, a death, or other things such as loss of ability or health, or even loss of hope, the holidays will not be the same as the might have been and one cannot assume they can celebrate the same as last year.

Planning requires getting together with family and loved ones and talking about the holidays. It takes sharing needs and wants, discussing what traditions can stay and what should be done differently. Involve everyone who will be affected as appropriate. Explain why things need to be different and tell everyone in advance. Don't be afraid to change or stop anything that is not helpful.

PERMISSION

Clifford said that you cannot cut off feeling sad, broken, angry, etc, without also cutting off your joyful feelings. A car battery needs both positive and negative charges to keep a car running and so does your heart. Without sadness, you could not comprehend joy and much like that car sitting idle, your heart would grow numb.

Using quotes from the Bible, Clifford showed examples that showed it is okay to feel angry or cry, but we must find healthy, helpful ways to express these emotions. He also said displaying these emotions did not demonstrate weakness or a lack of faith, but natural signs of being human and caring for those we miss. Appreciate those you have lost and what they mean to you. And for that young mother who lost her husband in a car crash or anyone in a similar position, it is okay to put yourself first. Set limits on what you can physically and emotionally do.

PACE

Using the TEMPO method (Time, Events, Money, People, Ordinary), Clifford showed how to breakdown situations to help cope with grief. He said time is a gift and should be used wisely. He also said grief is not a clock or a competition. Most likely, you should plan on doing fewer things so as to not wear yourself down.

Events including exercising, eating, drinking, etc., need to stay in moderation. When coping with a loss, it may be tempting to over or under do these things. When it comes to money and income, your financial situation has likely changed. It is okay to let people know what you can and can't afford. After all, it isn't the actual gift, but the act of giving that is most important. Your loved ones will understand and be touched by the mere thought of a gift in such a terrible situation. Live within your means.

As for people in your life, you may be surprised by those who don't seem to be around and those who are. Feel free to avoid anyone who believes themselves to be helpful, but prove to be a hindrance in their actions or words. Those who are quiet, offer love and affection, recognize your needs and limits and do not advise or tell you what to do without being asked are generally more helpful in your current state of being.

And lastly, keep ordinary routines or order. While your life will never be the same after experiencing any kind of loss, practicing smaller, ordinary or routine things may help bring a new order back into your life. You may have to do some things differently or in a different place or time, but try to keep some new routines to create a new 'normal' for yourself.

PRACTICE

In other times of hardship, how has your faith or religious practices helped you? Clifford believes there is a good chance your beliefs could help you again. He said continue your traditions, but alter them if need be. Maybe worship at a different time or place. He also says it is okay to ask 'why?' or question, blame, or even get angry with God or any Higher Powers. He said talk or pray to God and be honest and frank about your feelings. Clifford also suggested talking with clergy members about your needs, wants, and concerns or even go on a spiritual retreat.

A few other suggestions Clifford shared for anyone grieving over the loss of a loved one include setting a place at the dinner table for the person complete with picture and share fond memories or stories. For those that decorate a Christmas tree, make and hang an ornament with the person's name on it, or if decorating a tree proves to be too much, have a simple tree or none at all. Donating time and/or money to a charity or cause in the memory of the person will honor them and help a grieving psyche.

And for faith-practicing communities, celebrate special days such as All Saints Day or even offer a Longest Night Service (a modern Christian religious service held on or around the winter solstice, Dec. 21, that is designed to placate the struggle with darkness, loss, and grief).