Grief and the holidays: Compassion through community

Because we tend to spend more time with loved ones during the holidays, grief and depression may hit harder these days if you’ve lost a loved one — whether it was recently or years ago.

Every Winter Solstice, Salem Health hosts the Longest Night of the Year, A Candlelight Vigil of Remembrance. The free event features readings, music and a candle-lighting ceremony. All are welcome.

“While everyone experiences grief differently, healing happens best in community,” said Ken Morse, Salem Health Spiritual Care supervisor. “This event brings us together in healing and remembrance, as a gift to our community.”

If you’re struggling with grief this holiday season, here’s some insight from local grief counselor Kathleen Braza who spoke at Salem Health’s CHEC. If you’d like to watch her hour-long “Coping with grief and the holidays” presentation, click here. 

Don’t ignore it

If you hold grief inside, it has a tendency to come out — as an illness or depression. Grief needs healthy expression. Consider talking, writing, playing music or whatever suits your nature. The more you push it away, the more stubborn it gets. Braza calls it “nausea of the heart.”

Let go of unfinished business

Hanging onto regrets doesn’t help. Thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have given her the keys,” or “I promised we’d go to Hawaii,” can’t change the past.  It’s the most common sadness Braza hears in her grief counseling groups. Her advice: Do it now! Take that trip to Hawaii you promised and do it in their honor; or write a letter to your loved one.

Move toward your grief

It’s common for friends to avoid the subject with you. With good intentions, they want to help get your mind off it.  Don’t let them — encourage them to let you talk or cry. They don’t have to be strong for you; it’s comforting just to have them there with you.

Take all the time you need

A good grief counselor will say, “It will take as much time as it takes.” It’s also a roller-coaster, so expect highs and lows. Take breaks during busy holiday activities. In fact, get an egg timer and give yourself 15-30 minutes when grief hits and just sit and let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling. Look at their picture, talk to an empty chair, cry or write to release your feelings. When the timer goes off, do something physical to get away from it. If you take it in chunks, grief won’t be so overwhelming.

There should be no “should”

Don’t let people tell you what you should do.  Go easy on yourself and ask for help. Create one goal for yourself — to do things to help you remember your loved one in healing ways. That could mean setting a place at the table for them, including them in a blessing or tribute. Find a ritual you normally follow and adapt it in a way to remember them. 

Create giving rituals

Using an example from her own experience, Braza would buy a flannel shirt (the kind her father loved) and give it to a nursing home. Buy something your loved one liked and give it to someone.

Give gifts that belonged to the person who died – especially good for grieving children because they want to feel close to their lost sibling. Create a memory book. One mother created a quilt from her son’s t-shirts. Hang a Christmas stocking in their honor and tuck notes into it. Plant a tree or bush, or buy an ornament every year in their honor. 

Learn how to breathe

Grief will strike you any time – even years from now, so know how to catch your breath when you start to breathe in a shallow way. Breathe deeply. Be with whatever is going on, let it happen.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your feelings become overwhelming, a bereavement support group or grief counselor may be able to help you find your footing again.