The Year of Firsts and the Winter Holidays

By Jamie Edwards, LCSW

One of the most difficult times to experience grief can be during the winter holidays, especially if it is within the first year of a loss. I often talk to grieving clients about the year of firsts, the first year of our grief when every occasion, experience – big or small – is done for the first time without the loved one who has passed. These include birthdays, anniversaries, visits home, traditions, but also when you would/want to call the person that has passed, things you would normally do with the person that has passed, etc. This is something that only those in the grief club can truly know while they are experiencing it, and it can lead to a feeling of isolation as we realize that those around us are continuing on while we feel stuck.  Here are a few helpful guidelines during this time:

– Distract when you need to, allow the grief in when you can. A very well known suggestion given to grievers is “keep busy.” As loss is sudden (no matter how much you have tried to prepare) and often overwhelming, we get more room to distract ourselves from what we are feeling and thinking. It is absolutely okay to give ourselves lots of time and breaks when a loss is new or overpowering. It is still important for us to feel our grief over time, so letting it in in little spurts at first or certain times can be helpful, such as giving yourself a scheduled time in the day when you feel it.  Grief will never feel good, but maybe there are times when it is a little less painful, or you have a little more support when you can let the feelings in.

– Talk about it. It is a myth that those grieving don’t want to talk about their loss, in fact it can be very helpful and healing to do so with those you feel comfortable with and support from. Amongst families and those who are experiencing the loss, it can end up being the elephant in the room that no one is talking about, and suppressing the grief will only keep it under the surface longer to fester.

– Honor your loved one. One great way to talk about the loss with others – or just work through your own grief – is through honoring the person you lost.  Maybe there was something you always did with them on a certain day that you can recreate, maybe there is a favorite drink or song that you can taste or play, maybe it is going to their gravesite.

– Take in words of comfort that support you, leave out the rest. There are so many things that people say to those grieving that are unhelpful, and sometimes even unintentionally hurtful.  These include:

“I understand what you are going through.”

“________ would have wanted you to ___________”

“It will get better soon/You will get over it/You will learn to move on.”

“S/he is in a better place/heaven now.”

“You’ve got to be strong for _________”

Know that these frustrating and unwanted words are most likely about the person saying them, not you as the griever.  In western culture, death and dying is avoided and feared, something we are told to forget, to not talk about. This unfortunately leads to a society that is uncomfortable with the prospect and discussion of death and dying. And what do we do when we are uncomfortable? We try to fill the space to make it better, which in grief looks like saying the above words. And if you are the person trying to support a griever, if you are not sure what to say, it is perfectly acceptable to say nothing and just be present with the griever. Many of my grieving clients have wished more people would have done that for them.

– Ditch the comparisons – validate your emotions and experience. Grief looks different for everyone, there is no one right way to experience it or one way that it should look or feel. Comparing your grief to others will not make it go away or help it. Take out the “should,” “musts,” and “have to,” whatever you are feeling, it is already there and won’t go away if you deny its existence. One of the most powerful things we can do in our grief work is acknowledging its presence, validate what is happening for us. Once we do that, it’s certainly okay to not like it. For those supporting grievers, validating their experience can be just as powerful.

Loss is unique in that it cannot be erased – even in a non-death loss where we can get back what we temporarily lost, there still is a time of grief. This is an important time that we can experience in a healthy way, instead of trying to avoid or get rid of it.