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Michaele Potvin, LCSW Michaele Potvin, LCSW
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When everyone else seems so happy: Managing grief during the holidays

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I am currently trying to manage a barrage of emails and Facebook invites. Three offices I work in are planning Christmas parties - Yankee swap or Secret Santa? Should the gifts be donations to a charity or should we plan a potluck? I am surrounded by holiday concerts, movies, tree lightings, carolers and the Salvation Army ringing the bell outside of the supermarket. Beginning with Thanksgiving and Black Friday, it is the time of year for celebration, for gathering together and giving. It’s also a time of year for stress and high emotion, especially if you are grieving a loss. 

There are those among us for whom this time of year brings sadness and can intensify grief. For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one or loss of an important relationship the holidays can be a painful reminder of happier times.

Someone who is grieving may struggle with memories of celebrations with loved ones, shared traditions or get stuck in what once was. It’s important to remember, grief is not limited to death. Grief is a normal reaction to loss. It can be the loss of a significant relationship such as in divorce or a break up, a change in a person’s health or financial status due to a job loss.

For those whose loved one may be grieving, there are things you can do to support the person or persons you care for as they go through the process:

Invite them to gatherings and activities, do not avoid your loved one, they need support although they may not always accept it.

Be kind to those you love who are grieving. Grief has many faces and is not a linear process of consecutive stages. In her work, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has defined the stages of grieving as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some days may be days where your loved one is happy, smiling and engaged and others may be messy and difficult. Allow your loved one the space to be however they are.    

Acknowledge the people you care for by inquiring on how they are doing, what they have been up to or what is next for them. One of the most common things I hear people who have experienced loss say is, they feel as though the friends and people they knew and spent time with once no longer know what to do or say when they see them.

For those who may themselves be grieving:

It may be appropriate to create new traditions or evaluate the ones you have.

If you are grieving a death, create new ways in which to involve the person who has passed: light a candle in remembrance, set out a picture, donate to a charity in their name, engage in story telling with others about positive memories. Pinterest can be a wonderful resource. Also, different religions or cultures may have traditions which work for you.

Stay connected! Accept invitations to be with others or invite friends and family to activities. If the time comes to do the activity, be kind to yourself and know that it is okay to cancel plans if you’re not up for it.

Remember, it is okay to say no. There may be requests or expectations which are beyond what you can handle at this point in your life. You can say no. You do not have to offer excuses or apologize.

When is it time to get professional help? At some point, most grieving individuals will reengage more fully in life and establish new routines and a focus on the future. Because grief represents a normal human experience, there is no specific point in time when it becomes problematic. The duration of one’s grief and the intensity and impact of their emotional experience is largely what differentiates healthy from unhealthy grief. In general, signs that a person could use professional support include extreme grief lasting longer than one year to the extent, there is intense emotional reactivity to reminders, a lack of enjoyment or pleasure, anxiety or avoidance of reminders, the future, or engagement with others. I have many people who are stuck in a cycle of grief describe it as “feeling stuck,” or immobilized. They have difficulty functioning as they once did at work, at home, or in their community.

If you or a loved one is grieving and these experiences seem familiar, remember, there is support! There are books, support groups and there is an extensive professional support network in the Bangor area. Grief is normal following the experience of loss. Grief can also be painful and if left to fester, can become problematic. Grief does not have to be managed alone.

Most of all remember, anyone can be a fighting a battle you know nothing about. During this season of love and giving be kind to yourself and others and give yourself permission to be you.

(Michaele Potvin, LCSW, is a therapist at Restorative Health in Bangor.)

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