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Endpaper: Coping with Grief During the Holidays

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The 2020 holiday season will inevitably be linked to loss. The loss of being able to gather with friends and family. The loss of shared holiday meals and rituals. The diminishment of traditions that foster feelings of good will. All of these loses will be compounded for people who know someone who has died in the past year.

Although we understand intellectually that death is a natural end point of life, we are rarely prepared for the way the death of a loved one can impact our lives. The so-called normal cycles of life that occur in the year following the death of a loved one, the passage of seasons, the arrival of celebratory events, holidays or birthdays can all seem altered when we are grieving.

It’s only natural to feel uncertain or confused about what to do when facing a special occasion or holiday. Try not to rush into making a decision about holiday planning. Remind yourself that everyone grieves in their own way. In anticipation of the natural way grief seems to be more acutely felt during the holidays, you might start by talking with the people in your life who usually share holiday events. How is grief currently affecting their lives or ideas about holiday gatherings?

It’s also helpful to remember that most major holidays we celebrate serve us in ways we barely recognize. They are an important connection to ritual. Rituals have always given participants something to hold onto, a reminder of something more deeply meaningful than everyday life. In this sense, although coming together to celebrate may feel inappropriate, coming together to mark the holiday in a special way can serve to continue the connection with a loved one who has died.

There are many different ways to develop holiday plans that include a loved one who has died.

Local hospitals or hospice organizations often accept donations in honor of a deceased loved one and decorate a holiday tree using commemorative lights or ornaments. Some families decide to volunteer during the holidays at a local soup kitchen or children’s home or hospital.

If you are having a holiday gathering at home, you might set up a memorial corner. This can simply be done with a picture of the person who died and a candle nearby to be lighted after everyone has gathered. If it feels comfortable, you might ask each person to also add their favorite picture to the memorial. When the gathering includes a meal together one person or each person could say a toast honoring the person who died or recall a cherished memory of them.

In this COVID holiday season when gatherings may be limited to FaceTime- or Zoom-style get-togethers,

there is another layer of challenge and loss. Almost all of the possibilities of moving through the holidays that have been described can be initiated using digital technology.

Go at your own pace and allow yourself and those present with you to feel sadness as well as unexpected happiness. While feeling good may be the last thing on your mind, it’s possible the ritual of being together, either in person or virtually, will bring an emotional lift. In her book, A Short Course in Happiness After Loss, author Maria Sirois explores the kind of happiness that matters after someone has died. “The happiness that helps in great difficulty is realistic,” says Sirois, “it looks for meaning. It nourishes and sustains us.”

Written by Carolyn Van Ness, a retired Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner with experience as a medical journalist and author. Currently her priority is end-of-life education through her efforts as a Death Doula, Death Cafe member, and Hospice volunteer.