When you’re mourning a loved one, the holidays can hurt. But there are ways to make the season a little brighter -- or at least get through it.
Give yourself permission to grieve and to experience joy, suggests Deborah Shumate, a bereavement counselor with Novant Health Hospice in Charlotte, North Carolina. In other words, it’s OK to cry – and to laugh, if you feel like it, she assures clients.
“Everyone who comes in to see me this time of year is speaking about their grief in relation to the holidays, because it feels different,” Shumate said. “It changes the dynamics when you lose someone. You’ve got to be willing to change and for it to be different.”
Shumate offered her advice in a wide-ranging interview. An edited transcript follows.
Q: Why are the holidays so hard?
A: I just think that we happen to be a little more sensitive, perhaps a bit more sentimental, around the holidays, which exposes our hearts a little bit more. If your loss has been recent, it doesn’t take much to bring tears on.
It used to be that we would wear black for a year while grieving, but because we don’t anymore, no one knows that a loved one has died, and it makes you feel so alone. There’s no way to let strangers know that your heart is broken unless you tell them, but we don’t and we get even more isolated. Then we wonder why we are so sad. When people do know about our grief, they are kinder and treat us more gently.
Q: What might catch grieving people off guard?
A: Probably the triggers, such as a smell, a song or catching sight of somebody that looks similar to your loved one.
A client told me she was in church, and a boy in a hoodie walked in with his mom and dad. They sat in front of her a few rows away. Her son used to wear hoodies all the time. During the service, the boy leaned over and put his head on his mom’s shoulder. My client said she just fell apart. She was missing her son so much. A friend totally reframed that for her. She said: “I’d like to think that that was your son giving you that gift, that ‘Yes, I’m still here, and I still love you.’”
How we “language to ourselves” is really important. We have a choice to spin things negatively, or we can spin them positively. We cannot hold a negative thought and a positive thought in our minds at exactly the same time.
Q: What might help reframe the conversation?
A: Some things include mindfulness meditation, listening to music and letting the tears come. Getting yourself outside. Taking your shoes off. Feeling the grass underneath your feet. Connecting to Mother Earth. Then, while you’re outside, it’s using all your senses – noticing the color of the sky, the texture of the leaves, the feel of the sun on your face, and the temperature and the breeze as it comes. Can you smell the snow or the fall?
That’s mindfulness. We can worry about the future or we can worry about what’s happened, but being in the moment is the only place that we really have control.
Q: What else can help grieving people cope?
A: I believe in journaling. Write a stream of consciousness for 10 minutes. Try not to pause between sentences – just keep pushing. If we can give ourselves permission to let the page hold that truth in that moment, then it’s a beautiful timeline of your grief as you move through it. The beauty of it is that when you read something you wrote earlier, you might see that you’re not in that place anymore.
I do stream-of-consciousness gratitude work, too. We can get stuck on the grievance channel – just like a remote control with an old battery that won’t move off the channel. If we just pick up the remote, we can change it to the gratitude channel. “A storm is coming and I’m grateful there’s heat in the house. That I have milk. That I’m not driving to the mountains that I was going to. That there’s a store where I can get windshield wipers.” Can you hear the stream of consciousness? When it spins itself out, you’re in a different place than where you started.
Q: How can friends and relatives make this time of year easier?
A: One of the kindest and most generous things we can do is to say, “I know you are grieving, so I can either be here and help distract you or I can be here with you in your grief. What do you need from me right now?” Sometimes that might mean “just come sit on the porch swing with me and hold my hand,” and sometimes it means “I totally need to eat ice cream.”
As friends and observers, we often feel it’s our job to make somebody happy again, but sorry to say, you can’t. And it’s really not your job.
Instead, acknowledge the person’s grief. After that, say “I know you’re still grieving, and I can’t imagine what you might be feeling right now.” That’s the truth. We can’t. And, if you can make it, the next statement is: “I know I can’t fix it for you, but I will love you through this.”
Q: What do people do in the spirit of helpfulness that can actually hurt?
A: Platitudes are just the worst – things like, “Well, he lived a long life. He’s in a better place. You’re young enough to get married again. You can always have another baby.” Those statements are so painful.
People also push you to engage. I had a client who was struggling just to participate in Secret Santa at work. She said it was just too much. Let yourself off the hook if it’s too much. Say “I’m sorry, I can’t.” If people are going to judge you for that, that’s on them.
We need to be able to say, “I am not broken. I’m broken-hearted.” Those are two very different things.
Q: Are there other times of year or triggers for grieving people?
A: Obviously, the person’s birthday and death day – I call it the day of remembrance – and any other date that we have assigned meaning to in relationship to that person. It might be the day we stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower together, it could be your first kiss. If you assign a specialness to that date, expect it to be impactful.
Be intentional with your grief, meaning decide how you are going to honor your person on that day. It can be as simple as lighting a candle. It can be a prayer. A client showed me a picture of her Thanksgiving. She lit a tea light candle and the place was set, with silver and plates, and the candle in the middle of the plate – and that’s where her mom was supposed to be. She said it felt so good to do something to honor her mother.
When we’re not intentional, afterward we say, “I didn’t do anything, because I didn’t know what to do or was afraid I was going to cry.” You know what? You’re crying on the inside anyway, so it’s OK to shed tears.
Q: What are some signs that your grief is in unhealthy territory. And if it is, what should you do about it?
A: If there’s a flatness about your personality and you literally cannot get yourself out of bed or what you’re feeling is so out of character that it feels scary, seek out a counselor. If you suffer depression naturally, it makes sense that it might deepen. You have to know when something feels really out of the norm. The more we educate ourselves about grief, the more we understand that most people experience a somewhat normal journey through it, though very personalized.
Q: What does that “normal journey” look like?
A: William Worden’s four stages of grief are accurate: we have to accept the reality of the loss; work through the pain and grief; to adjust to the new environment without our loved one; and we have to find an enduring connection with our loved one while we move forward in our lives.
If your relationship with the person was in a bad place, your grief journey is going to be a challenge, because you didn’t have a chance to repair that relationship. Or you may be someone who was new in a relationship and your partner’s family didn’t even know about it, so you show up and are not welcome. That’s disenfranchised grief, and it’s very complicated because you don’t get the rituals to help you along the journey.
When someone dies of suicide or a drug overdose, that’s also a disenfranchised grief, and family members are less willing to talk about it so it’s just a harder grief to hold, especially if people are not willing to be honest about that. Honesty in those situations is really important.
Q: Anything else?
A: As human beings, we are wired to suffer and that means you can get through this. We get really judgmental of ourselves and judgmental of other people as we watch them grieve. We would be well served if we could instead embrace our grief, get curious about it and consider what it is trying to teach us about ourselves and about others.
Ultimately, we get to decide how our grief is going to inform us: Am I going to love everybody better? Am I going to be more focused on how I live, because I understand so clearly that life is fragile and can be over in an instant? Our grief gets woven into the fabric of our lives and becomes part of our journey.
And, humor is really important for us to connect back into when we’re grieving. Don’t be afraid to laugh. In my opinion, that is the essence of being human – to allow ourselves to grab those moments of joy even while we are suffering.
At Novant Health, behavioral health specialists can help you deal with these issues and regain control of your life. We are available 24 hours a day to provide care for children, adolescents and adults.