Grief During the Holiday Season - December 2017

woman grievingThe Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA) points out that it is easy to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season. Even when things are going well, the holiday season can be stressful. Having experienced a loss can make the holiday season that much more stressful. Loss can come in many forms e.g., death, divorce or estrangement. If you are dealing with the loss of someone close, the season can magnify these feelings. Unfortunately, society does not deal well with grief and sadness. Most people don't know what to do when someone has experienced a loss and may avoid them because of this.  If you are dealing with loss during the holiday season, the CMHA suggests that you keep things simple, ask yourself what is important and focus on this, and make your mental health a priority. 


What is grief? 
According to HealthLink BC, grief is your emotional reaction to a significant loss. The words sorrow and heartache are often used to describe feelings of grief.

What is grieving? 
Grieving is the process of emotional and life adjustment you go through after a loss. Grieving after a loved one's death is also known as bereavement.

Some facts about grieving
  • Grief is a natural response to loss and is a nearly universal experience.
  • Grief is not a tidy, orderly process. Grieving is a personal experience – it expresses itself in a variety of ways. In some cases, it can resemble major depression.
  • There is no “normal” or expected period of time for grieving - everyone is different.
  • Symptoms can include feeling shocked, numbness, sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, or fear, along with feelings of relief, peace, or happiness. Sleeplessness and a weakened immune system are also common experiences. Because grief takes up most of the ‘brain hard drive’, concentrating can be challenging.
  • You may become depressed or overly anxious during the grieving process.
What can you do:
  • Feel the emotions - the grieving process is the process by which you heal. In the long run, it is better to feel emotions rather than try to escape them. Do not fight the feelings of loss. It’s okay to cry as tears help rid the body of stress hormones. It is completely normal to feel sad and depressed – practice self-compassion and do not beat yourself up. Therapist and educator Alyson Jones gives the analogy of water flowing through a hose to our feelings being processed. If you let the feelings flow through you, your mood will naturally change. Give yourself time to work through grief, but don’t let it take up all of your time. Remember to turn the hose off after 10 to 15 minutes i.e., don’t leave the water running. If you don’t allow the water to flow, it will build up pressure and burst with negative consequences. Sofia Khouw, Registered Psychologist and Program Coordinator at Self-Management BC, explains that as much as we seem to prefer to remember the anniversary of someone's passing, or to remember them during special holidays, it would be more helpful to think of the good memories about that person rather than the fact that they have passed on.  Allow yourself to think of that person whenever you like and not only on those special days.  Also, allow yourself to be emotional instead of telling yourself that you shouldn't be because you should have gotten over the grief by now. Grief comes and goes like trains on platforms, you can CHOOSE to board that train or not.
  • Practice good self-care - this is especially important given the dark and gloomy weather at this time of year. Ensure that you practice healthy behaviours such as eating in a healthful way, exercising, and getting adequate sleep. Be careful with alcohol if you have a history of depression. Pace yourself as grieving is physically taxing. Practice stress reduction and relaxation techniques. One simple strategy to address stress is through breathing. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce the fight or flight response to stress and promote relaxation.
  • Accept help from others, even if you don’t feel comfortable doing this. It can help you feel less isolated. It’s okay to tell people how they can help. 
  • Be proactive and make a plan to navigate the holiday season. By planning ahead you are able to exercise some measure of control. Decide which events you want to attend. Have an exit plan when you attend an event so you can avoid feeling the stress of being ‘stuck’ in a situation. Do not let other’s expectations determine your activities and don’t feel guilty if you don’t participate. Do what you need to do for yourself. Also know that anticipation of special holidays can be worse than the day itself.
  • Give yourself a break from grieving by giving yourself permission to participate in activities that distract, such as movies, dinner out, reading a book, or getting a massage or a manicure. Do something special for yourself. 
  • Create new traditions by altering older traditions to fit the new phase of your life. A new tradition could be having a special celebration of the memories of the person you have lost. Take comfort in the memories of the good times. Examples of new traditions include decorating a memorial tree or lighting a candle in memory of the person you have lost. The CMHA explains that by doing these traditions, you can validate your feelings of sadness and overcome the guilt of enjoying special occasions.
  • Get outside of yourself. Volunteer or connect with your community. Help out at a local food bank or another community organization. Make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the person. 
  • Seek social support – resources are available for people who are experiencing grief. Being around other people who have similar experiences can provide you with a sense of connection and comfort.
When to seek professional help:
If your grief is making it difficult to function for more than a week or two, contact a grief counsellor, bereavement support group or your family doctor. 

Resources for people experiencing loss and grief
  • BC Bereavement Help Line (BCBH) is a non-profit, free and confidential service that connects the public to grief support services within the province of BC e.g., bereavement support groups, agencies, peer-based support and community events. When you call the Help Line, you will be connected to a caring volunteer. You can also sign up for their newsletter on their website. Phone 1-877-779-2223 or Lower Mainland 604-738-9950.  
    Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society website
    Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association website lists national bereavement resources
    Grief: Special Days and Holidays brochure by Victoria Hospice
    For Those Who Grieve: A Holiday Survival Kit booklet by Calgary Hospice
    Grief in Adults fact sheet by the Canadian Psychological Association  
    Bereavement - Support After Death booklet by Age UK 

Source: HealthLink BC website, Psychology Today website, Care2 website, CMHA website, Harvard Health Blog website, Huffington Post website

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