The overwhelming amount of loss we’ve experienced during this pandemic is in stark contrast to what is supposedly the happiest time of the year.
Nine months to a year into the crisis, depending on where you live, nearly 2 million people around the world have died from Covid-19. And that’s in addition to the thousands more people who died from deaths of despair, disease, accidents and other causes this year.
Grief, of course, is an experience that people encounter all the time — but this year there are pandemic-related factors that compound that normal process.
“Many of the deaths involve people dying very quickly or dying without their loved ones present. Even after the loss, there is not the ability to have the kind of support we usually have,” said clinical psychologist Therese Rando, the clinical director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Rhode Island. “We’re not just dealing with loss, but we’re dealing with trauma as well.”
And since the holidays are a time when we expect to feel love and togetherness among family, “the holidays are going to underscore the loss,” Rando, author of “How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies” and other books on grief, said. “So just by definition, the loss of a loved one is going to be taking out one of the elements that’s supposed to make the holidays so good.”
Grief doesn’t just go away, and if you don’t want to celebrate the holidays, you don’t have to. If you want to or are compromising with family but want to minimize the pain, however, here’s some advice that could help make the holidays both bearable and enjoyable.
Navigating or even abandoning expectations
Unrealistic expectations, memories and longing can darken your anguish and the holiday season. “We’ve sort of marginalized the holidays, and we’ve set this expectation that we should have this celebratory attitude,” said psychologist Sherry Cormier, a bereavement trauma specialist, consultant and author of “Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief.”
This year, “that notion is really challenged because during the pandemic we all have lost something even if we haven’t lost someone.”
People who are grieving may await the holidays in fear, dreading how horrible the days might be. Recognize that the anticipation is likely worse than what the actual day will be like, and “watch out about the shoulds,” Rando said. Because you’re grieving and there is so much adversity this year, don’t subject yourself to ideas of how you should be handling the holidays or thinking that something is wrong with you. You’re “experiencing something that’s very normal under the circumstances.”
Also, understanding the etymology of the word “holiday” might help.
“There is nothing in the ‘holy day,’ the meaning of the holiday, that even talks about celebration,” Cormier said. “It talks about a holiday as suspending ordinary business, meaning it’s a time when we don’t do what we normally do. … This year, in particular, it makes it more palatable when we realize we won’t have the celebrations that we typically have.”
Planning the holidays
Not celebrating the holidays is completely fine if that’s what you want to do, these experts said — but if you want to, rethinking or customizing traditions could make it easier.
Observing holidays doesn’t mean that you’re forgetting those who passed. “What the bereaved person has to do with the holidays is basically hold two realities at once,” Rando said. “One reality is, ‘my loved one is not here; I miss him or her.’ The other reality is, ‘these are the people who are still here, and I want to celebrate and enjoy that I acknowledge the holiday with them.'”
Think about which customs you consider important and whether some “need to be tweaked a little bit because it’ll be too painful with the person not there,” Rando said. Maybe that means instead of opening gifts on Christmas morning, you unwrap them on Christmas Eve.
Some people find symbolic memorials helpful, whether it’s lighting a candle in that person’s honor or telling stories about the holidays you shared together. “That can make a statement about missing their loved one or their loved ones still being a part of the family, even though they’re not physically present,” Rando said.
You could also donate to a cause your loved one found important. Some memorials may be acts of service, such as volunteering at a food bank. Any way that you can remember or extend the legacy of the person you’ve lost “is a very useful way to honor them,” Cormier said.
Setting boundaries with people
If you’re making adjustments, you’re likely having to do so in consideration of family in addition to your own feelings.
When declining traditions, tell people that you don’t want to participate because the event is too connected with the person you lost. Remind them that you love them but would appreciate their respect and having space. And acknowledge that things may be different next year.
If the loss is affecting your family, too, “you have to operate from the premise that one person’s meat is another person’s poison,” Rando said. “What you may need to help you get through the holidays may be precisely what someone else in your family may need to not do.”
There is no correct way to grieve during the holidays and how people handle grief shouldn’t be competitive. “There must not be an assumption that, ‘Well, if you don’t do it my way, then that means you don’t miss Mom or you don’t care that Dad died,'” Rando added. Instead, discuss painful triggers and what compromises might work for everyone.
Regarding people who don’t share your loss, Rando said, understand that “in the midst of all this craziness,” some people may unintentionally be less sensitive or responsive than you need them to be, given the stress.
Riding the dynamic waves of grief
A healthy component of grief is processing it by acknowledging it. “In the United States, I believe we are a grief-phobic society. We are avoidant of grief,” Cormier said. “But sadness and joy go together; they’re like yin and yang.”
If you get upset on Christmas, the whole day doesn’t have to be ruined. In fact, Rando said, you’re more likely to enjoy the day if you let yourself have those moments. Grief does coexist with other emotions.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t feel beside yourself with sorrow but rather numb — and therefore doubt how much you cared about the person. “With these kinds of deaths, there is a period of shock and emotional anesthesia, which is really important to have; it’s a survival mechanism,” Rando said. “It’s only over time as it can gradually recede and people can start to bend their mind around what happened.”
As you identify your feelings, remember that they’re impermanent. “While the loss is always with us, there are varying intensities of grief,” Cormier said. “It can be like a tsunami and it can make you feel like you’re going to be literally knocked down by the intensity of grief.”
And yet, tsunamis “don’t come every day. They come now and again,” Cormier said. “Other days the waves are high enough to jump, like 3 or 4 feet. So, they’re still there and you still feel them and then some days the ocean is very placid.”
Although processing your reality is important, you don’t have to sit in sorrow 24/7. “It’s OK to compartmentalize it,” Rando said, “as long as you’re not living there.”
The healing process
During and after the holidays, be compassionate toward yourself. At the same time, know that masking your grief by overindulging in substances or food can be more harmful than helpful.
Although doing so is socially acceptable on holidays, repercussions could include greater anxiety and reaction to grief triggers, or prolonged grief, which is much more challenging to resolve.
Reaching out to support groups, taking a daily moment to write down one thing you’re grateful for, sleep, movement, nutrition and time in nature can help to relieve the stress inherent in grief.
Overall, whatever you can do to healthily cope with the holidays and acknowledge your loved ones who are still here is enough. “Sometimes,” Rando said, “just getting through it is the most major accomplishment.”
By Kristen Rogers