December can be a challenging time for those struggling with grief and loss. As friends and family gather to celebrate the holiday season, and as the old year changes into a new one, we are reminded of those no longer with us now more than ever. It’s important to understand how grief and loss affects not only those dealing with it firsthand, but also for those who will be around others dealing with this difficult experience.
I’ve worked for 27 years in healthcare, specifically pediatric hospice and palliative care. My perspective comes from that practice experience as well as my own experience as a griever. I also researched grief and loss, including the history of our understanding of it and what we think now, which I use in my teaching at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
We are all wired differently in the ways we deal with grief and loss. It’s never easy, and the holiday season often makes this process even more challenging. The bottom line is to trust the unfolding process, and remain confident in your ability to manage grief. Even though we all experience devastating losses, we can find a way to endure and come out the other side, often growing from the journey with rich experiences to inform our lives.
Grief is a universal human experience. Historically grief was very much a community and social event. There were specific rituals and behaviors in place to support the mourner. These ranged from funeral practices to codes of conduct like wearing certain clothing, armbands or commemorative jewelry to communicate mourning. As people started talking about grief as a personal process or psychological phenomenon in the mid-20th century, it moved from an outside, social context to an inward, personal experience.
Grief is often very normal. Many people are shocked by the intensity of emotions they experience in grief. This can cause some to be concerned they aren’t “doing it right” or are not OK. Early grief research was based on questions from mental health professionals, who disproportionally saw people struggling with loss. In recent years, researchers like George Bonanno have found a variety of grief patterns that are considered very normal. In fact, studies now indicate only 4-6% of the population has long-term difficulty coping with their grief, also called “complicated grief.”
Grief can be managed. Loss happening outside the natural order of things can be devastating. For example, losing a child generally takes longer to recover from than other forms of grief. Some periods of time will be more difficult than others, but it’s important to remember even people who struggle to overcome grief can return to life and experience joy. They may never forget that child, and in some ways never get over it, but their grief can be managed.
Grief affects children. Children grieve differently from adults, but they do grieve. Sometimes this can be hard to spot, so it’s up to parents and educators to help connect the dots. Watch for new behavior problems like suspicions about ADHD or even physical issues like headaches and stomachaches. These can all be signs of a child struggling with grief. How do they cope? Children benefit from being included in (and not sheltered from) rituals and activities created to remember loved ones. They use these experiences to grow and work toward understanding loss. Invite children to talk about their grief, but give them space to decide when, where and how it comes up. Know, too, that children will typically address their grief in small doses: strong emotions will surface, followed shortly afterward by a desire to return to play or the comfort of familiar routines. This is normal for them.
4 Tips for Healthy Grieving This Holiday Season
Dealing with loss is never an easy process. Consider these tips for healthy grieving:
- Modify expectations. The holidays will likely be a challenging time with a lot of memories – and perhaps a mix of joy and sorrow in some of those memories. Plan a less intense schedule of activities and surround yourself with people who understand what you’re going through.
- Enjoy new traditions. Give yourself permission not to do everything exactly as you’ve always done it before. It might be a good time to start new traditions, and it’s OK to tell people you’re doing things differently to remember loved ones.
- Share memories. Some people put flowers in a prominent place or share stories in an intentional way. Everybody has their own way of remembering loved ones, but these are all great reminders.
- Ask for help. If you have children at home, and they’re expecting the usual holiday cheer, seek assistance from others. An extra smiling face around the house can help reinforce the holiday spirit and carry it forward while you take needed time for yourself. Counselors can help process strong feelings and questions.
2 Tips for Supporting Healthy Grieving This Holiday Season
It can be hard to know how to interact with friends and family members dealing with loss. Consider these tips for supporting healthy grieving:
- Ask how they are doing. Keep in mind those who are grieving will be very mindful of their loss. Don’t be afraid to mention the loved one’s name. People often find it very affirming and supportive to be asked how they’re doing and to hear their loved one’s name.
- Include them in social activities. It’s natural to think those who are grieving don’t want to be part of a holiday party or get-together, but most people find it nice to be with others. They can decide for themselves if they want to go, but the most important
thing is to be thought of, remembered and included.
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