Tips for dealing with grief during the holiday season

It seems everyone is excited for the holidays this year, decorating their homes and yards and making plans to be with family and friends. But for some people, this time of year isn’t so joyous.

“If you have lost someone close to you, whether it was recently or in the past, the holidays can be so difficult,” said FHN chaplain and spiritual care coordinator Sean Huguenin.

“When a loved one dies, you might be faced with grief over your loss again and again — sometimes even years later. Feelings of grief might return on the anniversary of your loved one's death or during the holidays.”

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These feelings, sometimes called an anniversary reaction, aren't necessarily a setback in the grieving process. They're a reflection that your loved one's life was important to you.

To continue on the path toward healing, know what to expect — and how to cope with reminders of your loss.

Sean Huguenin.
Sean Huguenin.

Huguenin encourages people dealing with grief at this time of year to be honest with your friends and family and embrace the traditions you can.

If you or your family or friends aren’t yet ready to gather in person due to pandemic precautions, talk on the phone or connect virtually and share some of those funny family stories or favorite family recipes.

“You’re carrying on the legacy of being a family,” Huguenin said. “The holidays are a good time for that. Even if you’re having a hard time, you’re giving of yourself and remembering and honoring the ones you’ve lost.”

The course of grief is unpredictable. Anniversary reactions can last for days at a time or — in more extreme cases — much longer. During an anniversary reaction, you might experience the intense emotions and reactions that you first experienced when you lost your loved one, including: anger, anxiety, crying spells, depression, fatigue, lack of energy, guilt, loneliness, pain, sadness and trouble sleeping

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Anniversary reactions can also evoke powerful memories of the feelings and events surrounding your loved one's passing. For example, you might remember in great detail where you were and what you were doing when your loved one passed on.

Even years after a loss, you might continue to feel sadness when you're confronted with reminders of your loved one's passing. As you continue healing, Mayo Clinic experts offer some steps to help you cope with reminders of your loss:

  • Be prepared. Anniversary reactions are normal. Knowing that you're likely to experience anniversary reactions can help you understand them and even turn them into opportunities for healing.

  • Plan a distraction. Schedule a gathering or a visit with friends or loved ones during times when you're likely to feel alone or be reminded of your loved one's passing.

  • Reminisce about your relationship. Focus on the good things about your relationship with your loved one and the time you had together, rather than the loss. Write a letter to your loved one or a note about some of your good memories. You can add to this note anytime.

  • Start a new tradition. Make a donation to a charitable organization in your loved one's name on birthdays or holidays, or plant a tree in honor of your loved one.

  • Connect with others. Draw friends and loved ones close to you, including people who were special to your loved one. Find someone who'll encourage you to talk about your loss. Stay connected to your usual support systems, such as spiritual leaders and social groups. Consider joining a bereavement support group.

  • Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. It's OK to be sad and feel a sense of loss, but also allow yourself to experience joy and happiness. As you celebrate special times, you might find yourself both laughing and crying.

  • There's no time limit for grief, and anniversary reactions can leave you reeling. Still, the intensity of grief tends to lessen with time.

If your grief gets worse over time instead of better or interferes with your ability to function in daily life, Huguenin said, talk to your healthcare provider, spiritual leader or reach out to a counselor at the FHN Family Counseling Center at 815-599-7300.

Mayo Clinic Healthy Living experts contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared on Journal Standard: Tips for dealing with grief during the holiday season