The decorations seems to go up earlier and earlier every year. This time it was even before Halloween. The whole world seems to want to tell us to be happy this time of year.
A lot of people I know hate this time of year.
If you've suffered a loss recently, or even several years ago, you know what I mean. It's just not the same. Even if Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years' didn't feel like big deals to you before, they may seem to feel dreadful now. This is the time of year when schools close, businesses shut down, and people take vacations.
All to be together.
But after grief, it's often now when the absence of a loved one is silently screaming into your heart louder than before. That empty space, that vacuum, that sudden panic that something is terribly wrong. It all seems to come back in the run up to the holiday season.
By now, you may have learned that controlling these emotions is often unrealistic. The approach I've come to appreciate as more helpful than trying to control feelings is to instead manage the stress that this time of year and these very heavy emotions can bring. The research on stress management is therefore perhaps more relevant than theories about grief. Unlike grief, we don't consider stress to come in stages. It's a relentless presence in all of our lives, more so in the non-linear pain of grief.
So how to manage during the holidays? The following might help:
1) Keep in mind that you're not suffering alone. The holidays are difficult for millions of people around the world, even though it's not addressed in television advertising and marketing. You are not alone in your pain, although the pain can feel terribly lonely. Even if your loss happened a long time ago, the holidays have a unique way of dredging up lost memories and the intensity of grief. You're not moving backwards, grief is circular. It often feels like it's running laps around milestone dates like birthdays and holidays.
2) Choose the people you want to be around. Choose helpful people, if you can. Perhaps your place of worship reaches out to people during the holidays. Try it out. If you find you really have no one around during the holidays, think of alternative plans you can make. Chinese restaurants are usually open, and there's less likelihood of running into families doing their Christmas shopping there. Try not to stay home in the confines of your pain.
3) Exercise. Grief is stressful. Work out the stress. I live in south Florida, where it's very pleasant this time of year. Chances are though that going for a walk is not realistic where you life. You might have to join a gym. You probably don't want to be walking around an indoor shopping mall with all the families, couples and Christmas carols playing. Bring headphones to the gym and walk on the treadmill or around their track. It burns off the stress in your body and gets you out of the house. Try and exercise in some form at least a few times a week. Research indicates that several months of moderate cardio exercise 30 minutes 3-4 times a week can be as effective as an anti-depressant, even in people with less than optimal health.
4) Eat as well as you can. Stress makes your body crave sweets and fat. Grief is stressful. There's tons of sugary snacks around during the holidays. It's a very dangerous combination! Try and eat as healthy as you can. You don't have to juice or become vegan, but do try to eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables instead of packaged snacks. The last thing you need with intense grief is cycling through sugar crashes.
5) Be mindful of addictive behaviors such as alcohol, smoking, or gambling. There's a reason people do these self-destructive behaviors: they feel good. Why do they feel good when we know they're not good for you? Fundamentally, they give you a sense of control. Grief is the consequence of total lack of control. None of us can control someone else's life span or even our own. Many people find an addiction gives them a sense of control, even if it comes at the expense of well-being. Try not to fall into this trap. Besides, alcohol is technically a depressant, smoking ruins your quality of life before killing you and gambling is expensive. None of these sound like good coping skills because they aren't. If you've benefiting from AA or NA in the past, the holidays are a good time to attend regular meetings.
6) Start meditating. A steady combination of regular meditation and exercise can completely transform how you experience stress. You can learn how to meditate here in some of my books. Nurture your spirit, even if your religious beliefs have been shaken or destroyed.
7) If you can't do it on your own, seek help. Reach out. Get into therapy. If you don't like your therapist, shop around. Try out different support groups till you find the right fit. There's no shame in taking psychiatric medication to get through this time of year if you need it. Grief is sometimes so intense, so outside of what we can easily manage, you should leave no stone unturned in seeking help.
I like to think of these challenging times of year as an athletic event. Instead of physical sports, the holidays are Olympic events that can stretch the limits of your emotional and spiritual endurance. You can't control whether or not you'll experience grief, but you can manage the stress of the holidays by approaching them with he attitude of an endurance athlete. That means developing regular training routines incorporating the above guidelines.
I wish you peace and freedom from suffering.