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The holidays are about coming together, spending time with family and tradition.
Or at least, that’s the message we hear as the days grow darker and the most wonderful (stressful) time of the year rolls around.
“Holidays tend to revolve around a lot of cheer and a lot of happiness,” said Laura Bradbury, a project coordinator for Caring Connections, a program to support people in grief, and managed by the University of Utah College of Nursing. Caring Connections offers support groups for those grieving suicide loss, overdose death and COVID grief. They also provide free grief training for mental health providers, first responders, teachers and others.
The program relies on “evidence-based bereavement education and support” in its offerings to the public, and emphasizes the physical, mental, emotional and social impacts of grieving a death, or other significant loss.
This time of year can be particularly difficult for those grieving for a lost loved one. They feel out-of-sync with the mood of the season and there’s “nothing quite like bringing everyone together to remind us that people are absent from that,” Bradbury said.
With that reality in mind, Bradbury shared advice on how to manage the holidays, and life more generally, when grieving. “I encourage folks to take it one minute at a time,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to change the plan if that’s what you need at the moment.”
1. Can you create a new tradition?
Rather than having a traditional turkey dinner or throwing the same holiday party, you can plan a new tradition. “Maybe for this first year,” Bradbury often tells her clients, “think about how you might do things a little differently.”
You don’t have to go on a full fledged road trip or cruise — just planning something out of the ordinary for yourself and your family can help.
2. Feel whatever you like
“This is a time to just be extra gentle with yourself,” Bradbury said.
Grief takes time to heal. It is an extraordinarily individual experience. And it is not an overnight recovery process, she said. Grief can take years to process and can show up at seemingly random or unexpected moments.
“Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling,” Bradbury said, even if those feelings aren’t necessarily in sync with those around you.
3. Gauge what you can reasonably handle
Bradbury encourages those grieving to be truly honest with themselves and with others about what they’re feeling and about what they can handle. She encourages people to think ahead about what they might need and what challenges the holidays might present and “try to mitigate some of that as much as possible.”
If there’s a big party a friend is throwing and you want to be supportive, tell your friend how you’re feeling. Instead of attending a huge gathering, one grieving client of Bradbury’s went beforehand and spent one-on-one time with the friend and left before other guests began to arrive.
4. Show yourself some love
“The holidays are stressful even under the best of circumstances,” Bradbury said. “Even if you love the holidays they’re going to add stress to your life.”
Adding grieving to that equation is a recipe for hard times. With that in mind, she encourages people to find ways to try and be extra gentle and caring for themselves.
This can mean eating healthy foods, engaging in gentle, restorative exercise, or not spending as much time with people “who might put a lot of pressure on us at this time of year.”
5. Finding community might help
Grief is different for everyone, Bradbury said, but “a pretty universal thread around grief is that it can feel very isolating.”
With holiday hubbub, vacations and the focus on feeling merry, many people feel distant from family, friends and their usual support networks. Sometimes, seeking out community and support of others can help. For instance, the U. of U. College of Nursing will hold a free “Grief and the Holidays” event on Nov. 15. All are welcome.
It serves as a good reminder, Bradbury said, that you’re not alone.