Christmas music and movies, holiday parties and dinners, thoughtful cards and gifts, festive decorations and tacky sweaters. All the makings of the holiday season that are meant to bring joy can be painful reminders of loss when you’re grieving the death of a loved one this time of year.
While coping with the loss of a family member or friend is hard on any given day, during the holidays, that person’s absence can be even more painful. “When you talk about holidays, you can point to a chair that’s now empty and that loss is magnified,” says Robert Smith, Executive Director of The Amelia Center.
A partner of Children’s of Alabama, The Amelia Center provides professional counseling for children and teens grieving the death of a close relative or friend. The center also provides counseling for parents grieving the death of a child, no matter the age of the child.
Robert has been counseling grieving families for nearly 20 years, giving guidance on how to handle grief in a healthy way even during the holidays. Here is some helpful insight he shares that hopefully can provide comfort to those struggling this holiday season.
How to Handle Grief During the Holidays
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
When grieving the loss of a loved one during the holidays, carrying on family traditions may seem impossible or even wrong. But Robert believes doing so can be key to a healthy grieving process. Instead of ending holiday traditions because a member of the family has died, find ways to continue to make that person a part of the tradition. For example, Robert says some of the bereaved parents he works with will have a halo or angel wings embroidered on their child’s Christmas stocking.
“I always tell my clients that death ends a life; it doesn’t end a relationship,” he says. “Instead of pretending that they didn’t exist and we have to change every single thing so that we don’t think about them, I think the opposite is more helpful. We find ways of keeping them in our hearts and our minds. We integrate them newly into our tradition.”
Furthermore, Robert says that continuing holiday traditions will show love and appreciation for other family members. “We want to remind the people who are still here and present that they’re still worthy of being thankful for or having a Christmas or a holiday,” he says.
Moving forward with holiday traditions while grieving may seem impossible because you simply want to be left alone. Avoiding social interactions is a normal response to grief, Robert explains. However, he encourages his clients to eventually push themselves to be active and to be around other people. “My advice to my clients is that you have to be courageous, and you have to be moving in your grief. Isolating yourself or being still, while sometimes is a short-term strategy, is not a long-term strategy.”
Robert says many of his clients find that being social helps them work through their grief. “Having a chance to laugh and just being normal for a few minutes can be very therapeutic,” he adds.
Spending time with family members who are also mourning the loved one who has died can also be helpful. “You’re crying, but you’re crying with people who love you the most, and you’re crying with people who are also hurt in similar ways,” he says. “Those families usually have a better opportunity to rally and eventually tell stories and laugh and find ways of remembering this person not simply because they died but because they lived.”
When to Seek Counseling for Your Grief
Robert doesn’t believe that every person dealing with the death of a loved one needs counseling. There are other ways to work through your grief such as journaling. He also says it’s important to exercise and eat a healthful diet. “You have to take care of your body so your body will take care of you,” he says.
Talking to family and friends can be helpful as well. But if you’re having thoughts and feelings that you’re not comfortable sharing with them, consider counseling. “We always want to take care of the people we love, and in doing so, sometimes we don’t always tell the whole truth or express all the things going on,” Robert explains. “So, it’s nice to have someone outside that loop who you can talk to about anything – the darkest of thoughts or the deepest of emotions or the questioning of God.”
How to Help a Grieving Child
If you are a parent grieving the death of a family member, you also have the challenge of helping your children deal with this loss as well. So, while you may be coping with the loss of a parent, you must also help your children cope with the loss of their grandparent. “Children, on the most part, will handle death far better than adults do,” Robert says. “What we see with a lot of kids is they seem to do really well – especially in the short term.”
Children may need six, 12, or even 18 months to truly understand what a death means. With time, you may notice your child struggling to cope with the loss. Robert says if you start to notice dramatic changes in behavior — such as regressive behavior or acting out at home or school — you should consider taking your child to see a counselor.
While it’s your responsibility to help your children cope with their grief, this doesn’t mean you have to hide your own. However, you must be a functional caregiver even while you’re a grieving one. “You can be upset, you can cry on occasion, but you also have to be able to cook dinner and keep house and keep schedules and go to work and make your kids go to school.”
Enforcing structure while still acknowledging your pain shows your child what healthy grief is, Robert says. “We can be upset, and we can cry,” he explains, “but we’re still functional people.”
How to Help a Grieving Family Member or Friend
If you have a friend or family member suffering a significant loss during the holiday season, the greatest gift you can give that person is your presence. “Don’t say, ‘Call me if you need something,’ because grieving people don’t do that,” Robert says.
Instead, you need to make the first move to spend time with your bereaved friend. Don’t worry about not knowing the right words to say. Accept that nothing you say or do will take away their pain. “We have to be comfortable with the fact that people are not always going to be okay,” Robert says. “When you’re in these periods of substantial change and loss, you’re not okay, and you don’t need some little quip or placating little sentence to make you better.” So, be there, even if that means being silent, and continue to be there even when your friend seems to be doing better.
“Don’t assume because a month has gone by or six months has gone by that people are okay, even if they look okay,” he says. “Grieving people learn to put on a mask. Be present even when it looks like they’re doing alright.”
This article is sponsored by Children’s of Alabama.