Some people know all too well how the holidays seem to make the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and grief even more difficult to cope with. Some people may not feel this same struggle, but chances are that they have friends, co-workers, and family members joining them for Thanksgiving and Christmas who appear to be doing well on the outside but the internal battle may be raging. We’re talking about Holiday Grieving.
Over the last three blogs, we have been talking about how to spot different degrees of some common symptoms of anxiety, depression, and grief. We will also give you some quick ideas about what you can do to help. If you are reading this and are currently suffering with these symptoms, we hope that this will give you some insight about how to cope and maybe even find language to express some of the needs/boundaries that you might have so that others might better support and comfort you. Research tells us that 1 out of 4 people directly experience an ongoing debilitating mental health disorder, that affects their daily life functioning.
“One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. Treatments are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional. Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders” (World Health Organization (WHO).
WHAT THE HOLIDAYS FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU ARE GRIEVING
I know several people who recently lost loved ones to suicide and who have experienced traumatic miscarriages. In her article*, “What Grieving People Wish you Knew at Christmas,” author Nancy Guthrie writes, “While those of us who surround grieving people can’t fix the pain of loss, we can bring comfort as we come alongside those who hurt with special sensitivity to what grief is like during the holidays.”
We all probably have friends and family who will struggle to embrace the celebration, decadence, and excitement of the holidays this year (even if we don’t realize it). Not because they don’t want to, but because loss, divorce, strained family connections, illness, and financial insecurity (to list a few) have cast a large shadow over the lights and splendor. All of these things, but especially loss, can trigger a multitude of thoughts and feelings that may make this year more of a “get-through-it” kind of Christmas. We need to be sensitive to situations like these as the body of Christ. We need to be sensitive as lovers of people.
“THE ABSURDITY OF GRIEF”
Stephanie Wick, Ph.D., LCMFT, LCAC, a colleague in the city where I live, recently wrote this on the subject. She describes one experience of grief, and the explanation is so spot on that (though it lengthens this blog a bit) I wanted to include this in full:
The Absurdity of GriefThere was once a woman, who only hours after losing her four-year-old daughter in a tractor accident, went home to do laundry. She knew how to wash clothes; she didn’t know how to mourn the death of her child. This same devoted mother had argued with her four-year-old just that morning about changing out of her “church” socks into her “everyday” socks, only later to submit the question “Did it really matter anyway?”***********It’s nonsensical at times. Crazy making. Emotional whiplash. It’s expected and yet so unexpected. It’s hard to predict how and when and where it will rear its head. It’s triggered by nothing and everything. It feels like forever and just yesterday, all at the same time. It’s the most profound, inexplicable, unyielding pain most will experience. And to make things worse, it doesn’t end. It just becomes more manageable to cope with.*************Grief is absurd. Often it doesn’t make sense. We know it exists, but until we experience it, it’s nearly impossible to understand. We are uncomfortable in its presence, often saying things that are wellintended, but nonetheless unhelpful or insensitive. It’s the deepest of sorrows.*************The first laugh is often accompanied by guilt. Sometimes we don’t want our grief to end, because to stop grieving may mean that we are forgetting. Our grief becomes a connection to our loved one. We struggle to remember how our loved one looked, sounded, smelled and felt. Dreams, good and bad, often parallel our grief process and for some, wonderful “paranormal” encounters offer consolation that our loved one is nearby. We experience the profound loneliness when other’s lives seem to go back to normal, while ours remain stuck in time. Everything looks different, even the grass and trees. We recall our last conversations and the absurdity of feeling as though our loved one will call at any moment.***************At points, it may be the absence of feeling.***************This is the thing: there is only one wrong way to do grief, and that is NOT to do it. We can’t avoid it, although some of us try. In the case of grief, to hurt is to heal. There is no scripted method of grieving. One may wail loudly or sit in quiet contemplation. One may write letters, peruse photographs, set a place for the loved one at the table, wear ashes, get a tattoo, embrace a familiar t-shirt, have one-sided conversations with their loved one, visit a cemetery, leave a room untouched, and on and on and on.***************Problems arise only when we get “stuck” on one side of grief or the other. That is, if we become so consumed with the emotional work that we disconnect from the rest of our lives (e.g., depression); or when we consume ourselves so heavily with our lives (e.g., work) that we conveniently avoid our grief.****************Imagine an oscillating fan, gently vacillating from one side to the next. For a moment, we experience the intensity of grief, sometimes out of nowhere. We sit in that emotion; we don’t get stuck in it. Soon, we vacillate back to our life, tending to our relationships, work, school and financial responsibilities.****************So the process goes. Back and forth, back and forth. And little by little, often without even noticing it, we find hope again. We smile, without guilt this time. Color begins to return to the world. And our lives go on because they must.
HOW CAN I HELP?
Whether you are struggling yourself, or you know someone who is hurting right now, here are a few helpful and practical things to think about when interacting with someone for whom the holidays may not be as happy:
BE HONEST WITH FRIENDS AND EXTENDED FAMILY. STATE YOUR LIMITS AND ASK FOR HELP IF YOU NEED IT.
It’s understandable you may not be ready to be surrounded by people, and that’s okay. You have permission to request some space. You are released to set your own level of celebration. Allow yourself the opportunity for quiet reflection. You are invited to do something that is comforting and restful. On the other hand, you may feel like you are lonely and need to be surrounded by people. If this resonates with you: ask for this, seek out community at a church or a gathering of friends. Your needs are very important.
If you are on the receiving end, try to respect the asking person’s boundary. Be gracious and flexible. I know that you want them to be included your desire is that they’d feel the joy that you do. You may think that if they could just get to the party or gathering that they would feel better. Most of the time, people know their limits and if they’re asking for some space, the most loving thing you can do is to honor that and ask/offer them if there is anything else they might need (i.e. quality time the day after or a few days after Christmas, a home-cooked meal, a gift for them to be able to treat themselves (i.e. spa gift certificate or offering to watch the kids for a few hours)). If someone you know is struggling with loneliness, make a space at your table for them this Christmas. Flex your plans to include this individual. Shower them with generosity and kindness.
DON’T FORSAKE MEANINGFUL TRADITIONS
Our tendency when we experience tragedy or loss might be to do away with anything and everything that serves as a reminder, because we feel searing pain when we encounter these things. But avoidance can sometimes increase and intensify our pain. You are allowed and able to hold both pain and joy. There are traditions that your family may have passed down for generations. Meaningful and special: faith traditions (i.e. attending a candlelight service, reading the Christmas story in the Gospels, or singing hymns and carols), homemade foods and desserts, readings, outings, movies, decorations, gifts, and games. Give yourself permission to participate in these things as a way to celebrate the life of the one you may have lost. Dedicate a dinner or activity to them.
If you are the family member, support person, or friend for this individual… be sure that you are not pressuring and that if they chose not to participate, that is okay. They are not rejecting you. They may be feeling overwhelmed and anxious about bringing attention to themselves with their participation.
TALK ABOUT FEELINGS
Some of us have grown up with a perspective that sharing feelings/emotions is too vulnerable and that the risk of feeling minimized, rejected, or judged by sharing is not worth it. Most of us have learned that stuffing our emotions is equally (if not more) harmful and that these feelings find other ways of getting out (whether we want them to or not). Acknowledge the things you are thinking and feeling and find someone safe to process them with. Or, start by journaling or writing them out. Being honest about what you are feeling is a huge step in the grieving process.
If you are the listener in this dynamic, be an active one. Active listening means that you are providing the one sharing with: quality eye contact; validation of what they are feeling by reflecting back to them what you are hearing; some form of physical touch as a reminder of connection; and/or non-verbals that suggest that you are present with them (verses distracted and disengaged). Remember to use ageappropriate descriptions and language if you are talking to children. Express your support and reject the temptation to offer trite or clichéd words that may come across as insensitive or hurtful. The goal is connection and empathy, not problem-solving.
PLEASE DO NOT FORGET ABOUT THE REASON WE CELEBRATE THESE HOLIDAYS IN THE FIRST PLACE
Blogger Bob Russell, when speaking to church leaders states: “We would do well to remember the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph faced the stress of finding a place to stay. They spent the night in a stable. Their child was born without any professional medical care, anesthesia or sterile conditions. This must have been a far cry from what Mary had imagined that day when Gabriel informed her she was going to give birth to the Son of God.”
When we remember the story of Jesus’ birth, we are reminded that Christmas has always been a bit messy. But, it is a time to emphasize, recognize (and celebrate) the message of perfect Love being sent as the gift to trump all other gifts. One of my favorite Christmas tunes articulates this beautifully: “till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” When we feel sad and hopeless, when we feel like our heart has been ripped apart, and when we experience loss or face tragedy that feels like being trapped under wave after wave of pain… we can find Him in the midst of this and allow our souls to feel valued, worthy, and prized. He is the light that cannot be extinguished, even by darkness and death. In Him we find our hope and the strength we need to carry on.