Coping with Grief During the Holidays

Courtesy of HPH Hospice

Picture this: Your mother has broken her arm and it’s time to make her traditional pecan pie for the holidays.

It’s easy to see that it would be difficult for her to make the pie this year, so you let her know that she shouldn’t worry about bringing it.

Bereavement counselor Dale Thien offers practical tips for grieving people who are expecting a difficult holiday season. It’s easy for people to see a broken arm, said Dale Thien, a bereavement counselor for HPH Hospice. It’s not always so easy to see the effects of a heart that’s broken by the death of a loved one.

Young woman and old woman The bereavement counselor said she often opens her workshops by talking about how expectations change when we can see a physical ailment that poses limitations, and the need to make similar adjustments when someone has suffered an emotional loss that’s equally, if not more, debilitating.
“Your grief is like you have a broken heart,” Thien said. “The thing is, we can’t really see that.”

During her workshops, she asks those who are grieving to give themselves permission to grieve. And, she asks them to let their loved ones know what they need.

“Understanding can come from the rest of the family, as they adjust their expectations about the holidays and about the role that this grieving person will play,” she said.

The death of a loved one often creates a sense of disorientation and a loss of equilibrium, as people adjust to life without the physical presence of their loved one.

“So, we want to make adjustments,” she said.

It may be time to modify the family routine, Thien said.

“We don’t want to stress people out with too much of the same because it becomes so obvious that there’s a big gaping hole where the person you loved used to be,” the counselor said. “I think some people dance around the issue of, should we mention the loved one’s name or not?”

Typically, people look to the person who had the closest connection to the deceased to provide guidance on this issue, she said.

“If you’re the grieving person and it was your main loss, then probably your family is waiting for you to mention their name,” Thien said. “And then, they will get the go-ahead that it’s OK to be talking about that.”

She recalled an instance when a widow told her that she was angry with her family because they never once mentioned her deceased husband during the holidays. Later, that same day, the daughter told the counselor she was upset because they had not talked about her father.

“So, everyone just danced around this elephant in the living room,” Thien said. “No one acknowledged it.”

People often do not know how to handle these situations, Thien said. She suggests, in this case, the daughter could have said to her mother in private: “I’m interested in talking about dad. Is that OK with you?”

The workshop seeks to give grieving people the tools for handling the holidays.

“We’re also going to try to empower the grieving person to ask for what they need,” she said.

One practical tip is for grieving people to drive themselves to holiday gatherings, Thien said. That way, they’re free to leave when they want to.
People who are grieving may not be up to the hustle and bustle of shopping.

So Thien advises them to simplify their gift giving. They can buy everyone the same gift, for instance, or send mail-order baskets of fruit. Or, they can give cash.

People who are grieving may not feel like sending out holiday cards. They might not have the energy to decorate the house.

They don’t have to, Thien said. “You get a pass this year.”

Or, they may want to invite family members to come decorate their home, or just put up fewer decorations.

If they decide to attend holiday gatherings, she said, they might need to step aside if they’re having trouble handling their emotions.

It’s perfectly fine to tell a party host: “I’m doing as well as I can, being here, around all of this merriment at holidays, but please understand that this is hard for me. So, if I need to go outside for a minute and have a tear, please don’t follow me. Please just let me be, and I’ll come back into the room when I’m ready.”

People grieve in different ways.

“Some people clearly do want to be left alone,” Thien said. “It’s certainly OK to opt out entirely.”

On the other hand, she added, some people “need hugs and socialization and reassurance.”

“My suggestion is small doses,” Thien said.

Swing by holiday parties, but just stay as long as you feel comfortable.

“You’re doing the important work of adjusting to life, now that your loved one is gone,” she said. “You are engaging in trying to find a new normal for yourself.”

The bottom line is finding what works for you during the holiday season, she said.

“People who really love you are going to understand,” Thien said.

HPH HospiceHPH Hospice (HPH) is a not-for-profit community-based healthcare organization providing innovative, skilled medical care to patients with life-limiting illness and compassionate support to their family members. 

Established in 1982, and initially licensed in 1984, we provide hospice care to the residents of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties in Florida. Our commitment to the individualized needs of our patients, and our focus on Care, Comfort and Support in delivering compassion and dignity, have remained our strength.