Grieving the loss of a loved one is never easy, but the holidays can be an especially challenging time.
Complicating things further is the fact that grief is not a neat, tidy and orderly process, especially during the holidays when the emphasis is on spreading happiness and cheer.
Joseph Leithold, M.D., a physician with Woodcroft Family Practice in Beavercreek, said that grieving is a natural and necessary process to emotionally survive the tragic loss of someone close to us, someone we love. He said that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of the grieving process can help identify those in trouble: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, with depression being the longest and most challenging stage.
“Depression or grieving is at one end of the emotional spectrum of emotions. It is a low-energy state of being. Often people lack the energy necessary to sustain their emotional well-being to get through their day with a positive outlook,” said Dr. Leithold. “They can feel crushed inside, unable to effectively cope with their loss. They may experience weight loss, or weight gain, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, outrage, hurt, emptiness or envy.”
Grieving is often accompanied by anxiety, characterized as an abnormally high-energy state of emotions marked by feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious or irritable.
“When these feelings build-up inside like a pressure-cooker, we call these emotional bursts panic attacks. Hence, people grieving through the holidays are governed by mood swings, dangling between the feelings of depression and anxiety,” Dr. Leithold said.
And while there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are things that the bereaved can do to help make the holidays a little more manageable. Dr. Leithold advises logical things like taking care of oneself physically by eating nutritiously, getting enough sleep and exercising.
“Studies show that those who exercise regularly handle stress better, are sick less often and have a happier outlook on life overall,” Dr. Leithold said. Another thing he recommends is reaching out to others for support such as a physician, counselor, clergyman or a support group.
One such support group is GriefShare, a national Christian-based, grief recovery support group that provides help and healing from the hurt of losing a loved one. Thousands of small GriefShare groups meet weekly across the country and Canada and the 13-week program is designed so that participants can join in at any week. Each session focuses on a specific topic with video seminars featuring interviews with leading authors, counselors, speakers and pastors with years of expertise in grief recovery, small group discussion and workbook/journaling exercises.
Melisa Smith-Latapy of Mason discovered GriefShare after the death of her brother and mother within a two-month time span that was also during the holiday season.
“I was going through a really tough time when I found out about GriefShare,” said Smith-Latapy. “One of the most important things I’ve learned through the program is that grief is a journey and the way you grieve can vary with each loss because the relationship you have with each loved one is very different.”
Smith-Latapy said that her life was so transformed for the better because of the program that she has gone on to become a facilitator for a group that meets at Mason United Methodist Church. She has seen first hand the positive healing affect the program has had on the participants in her group.
“It’s a huge thing to realize that you are not going to walk this journey through grief alone. People in the group grow so close – many stay in touch with one another long after the program ends,” Smith-Latapy said.
She also agrees, from personal experience and that of her role as a facilitator, that the holidays present an increasingly difficult challenge for those grieving the loss of a loved one.
“People who are grieving, fear and dread the holidays,” commented Smith-Latapy. “We talk about different things the participants can do to get through them. Having a group of people around you who understand what you’re going through goes a long way in being able to better cope with the holidays.”
For more information about GriefShare or to find a group near you, visit the website at www.griefshare.org.
Advice from GriefShare
GriefShare offers the following practical tips for getting through the holidays:
• PREPARE – The ambush of emotions can attack at any time; prepare beforehand – things like driving yourself to social events so that you can leave without causing too much disruption if the emotions get to be too much.
• ACCEPT the difficulty of this time of year and your loss. Remind yourself that it’s a season - it will pass.
• SOCIALIZE – Don’t hibernate - force yourself to go out even if it’s only for a short time.
• LOWER your expectations – Movies and songs often paint an unrealistic picture of the holidays.
• DON’T ANESTHETIZE the pain with drugs or alcohol. Numbing it with chemicals creates more depression.
• TRIMMING – If old ornaments or trimmings cause too much pain, don’t hang them this year.
• GET UP AND MOVE – Take care of your physical well-being. Eating healthy foods will give you strength; fattening and sugar-filled foods can worsen your depression. Exercise produces natural stress reducers.
• SHOP online if going to the mall is too stressful.
• COPING STRATEGY – Make the commitment to call someone if negative thoughts get to be too much. Have the phone number of your counselor, pastor, church, close friend or hotline already taped to your phone.
• LIGHT – Get some sunshine - winter can take its toll on your emotions by the loss of sun you experience.
• INVITE a new (same-sex) friend to a movie, have dinner or help decorate the house.
• SET BOUNDARIES – Explain clearly to your family and friends what you are capable of doing this year, and what you aren’t. Don’t let others guilt you into taking on more than you can handle.
• REACH OTHERS Reaching out to people who might be alone during the holidays can also help you.