The holiday season often inspires feelings of warmth, joy, and belonging. However, for some people, this time of year is overwhelmingly marked with loneliness, sadness and anxiety — particularly after the loss of a loved one during the year. The holidays are for being with those we love the most and coping with the first holiday season (or many) after the loss of a relative or friend can be incredibly challenging.
Although grief is universal, it expresses itself in many different ways. Friends and family members of those affected by loss are often unsure of what to say or how to act to support their loved ones who may be struggling.
Here are a few ways you can provide meaningful support and honor those in your life who may be grieving this holiday season:
Be present. You know your loved ones and you can sense when something is bothering them. Without pestering, it’s important to let them know that you are available to listen. When they are ready to talk, respect their vulnerability and turn off your phone, the TV and any distractions to let them know you are there to listen and support them. Being present can also mean simply being with your loved one. Sit next to them and be accessible in the area without being suffocating.
Grieve together. While you may feel like you need to be strong to be there for others who are struggling to cope, it’s also important to be vulnerable and honest and allow yourself the time to grieve as well. By sharing this experience, your loved one will know that they are not alone in this process and will feel less isolated during this challenging time.
Re-evaluate your holiday traditions. One reason that the holidays can intensify feelings of sadness or depression is because cherished activities trigger happy memories and can become a source of pain. If your loved one retreats from participating in the traditional holiday festivities, respectfully give them their space and let them know you’re there when they’re ready to talk.
Find new traditions to honor their memory. While the topic of loss can be difficult to discuss, it’s important to acknowledge the special memories of our loved ones and keep their legacy alive through new traditions at the holidays. If all feel comfortable, share stories and your favorite memories of that person so the younger generations of your family can learn more about them. Consider getting a special ornament in their honor that can be shared with all family members to keep their memory alive each year. Or, if they had a favorite dish they brought to each holiday gathering, carry on that tradition by bringing the same dish to future family gatherings as a nod to their memory. Remember that the new normal and traditions are not bad, just different, and may take time.
And, as always, if the grieving process ever becomes too cumbersome or starts to interfere with daily life, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional to see what support or counseling options may be available to ease the burden of grief.
Rene Czerwinski is a licensed mental health counselor and national certified counselor at Pacific Medical Centers in Totem Lake in Kirkland.