Do you feel sad around the holidays? A lot of people do. The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time surrounded by loved ones and about joy and good cheer. So why do many people have a hard time? For some, there was a loss around the holidays, so it’s a reminder of someone they loved passing during that time. Or, being around others who have their loved ones, is a reminder of the loss of a special relationship. And, for many, it’s the first holiday without their loved one.
As you can see, there are many reasons why this time of year can be emotionally charged and challenging. There is a lot of stimulus touching your heart in its most painful spot. With all the holiday hustle and bustle, someone in this situation will either prefer to isolate or become the organizer and entertainer. In the process, you are using the holiday busy-ness as a distraction.
What is a stimulus, and how does it relate to grief?
Stimuli consist of the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes that trigger our memory. It causes your brain to recall events or feelings associated with the stimulus. Stimuli such as holiday lights, decorations, and music can cause you to remember a family member who died, a break-up, or childhood experiences. Fond memories are normal and healthy. Unresolved grief is when fond memories turn painful.
The same stimulus can affect two different people in two different ways. Let’s say two sisters hear a Christmas song that was a favorite of their mother, who died.
One sister might hear the song and remember how much her mother loved it. She may miss her mother for a few minutes, but then she goes back to what she was doing. The song served only as a reminder of how much she loves her mom but didn’t affect her entire day.
The other sister might hear the song, think about how much she misses her mother, get sad, and be unable to focus the rest of the day. She might walk around feeling numb and unable to participate in holiday festivities fully. Or she may refuse to talk about anything other than her mother’s death.
The second sister is an example of unresolved grief.
A personal example I have is my dad always used Old Spice after-shave. And, not so very long ago, I was visiting my mom, and what did she have in her medicine cabinet in the bathroom? A bottle of Old Spice after-shave. I never asked her about it, and I don’t have to – I already know why she has it in there after all these years. Perhaps it’s still the same bottle left from my dad – I don’t know.
Another personal example is when my dad would change his colostomy bag. That smell is burned into my brain. And, although that’s not something that someone would smell on the regular, when I have, throughout my life smelled something even remotely similar, it takes me back in time. And, it’s not a particularly happy memory at all.
I have so many examples of this. I’m sure you can think of some of your own as well. Reminders can be all around us at times. During the holidays, it can just feel overwhelming.
Even at Thanksgiving, I found myself talking about Cabbage Patch dolls. What came up for me, at that moment, was how the first Christmas after my dad died, I received two cabbage patch dolls in the mail from who, I don’t know. All I know is, I can think of these things now with gratitude with how far I’ve come in addressing the grief around losing him. The grief never goes away – it just changes, as does my response to it. I’m not dwelling, ruminating, and feeling stuck in that grief rut as I had been all those years prior.
How do I know if I’m experiencing unresolved grief?
The holidays may remind you of any number of losses, such as moving, events that happened during childhood, an ex-spouse, a sick child, or a pet that died.
If a Christmas tree reminds you of the fun holidays, you spent with a loved one who died, that’s normal. If you then become brokenhearted over the loss of your family member due to fond memories turning painful where your entire day is impacted – that’s unresolved grief.
Unresolved grief affects your ability to stay in the moment, which limits your capacity for happiness. During the holidays, it might limit your ability to enjoy time with your friends and family fully. Some people avoid holidays altogether because they don’t want to risk the feelings associated with painful reminders of their loss. Until you become complete with the losses in your life, you will never be able to enjoy all life has to offer fully.
Unresolved grief may be at the root of any fear associated with thoughts or feelings about a relationship. – The Grief Recovery Institute
What To Do Instead When Grief is Causing the Holidays to Suck
The Death of Someone Important to You:
- Don’t Isolate Yourself. It’s normal and natural to feel lost and alone―but Don’t Isolate―even if you have to force yourself to be with people and participate in normal activities.
- Don’t misuse food or alcohol to cover up or push down your feelings. As children, when we were sad about something, we were often told, “Don’t feel bad. Here have a cookie, you’ll feel better.” The cookie doesn’t make the child feel better, it makes the child feel different, and the real cause of the sadness is not addressed. When we get older, alcohol and drugs are used for the same wrong reasons―to mask feelings of sadness.
- Talk about your feelings, but don’t expect a quick fix. It’s essential to have someone you trust to talk to about your memories and the feelings they evoke. Ask your friend to listen to you and not try to fix you. You’re sad, not broken; you need to be heard.
- While it’s important to talk about your feelings, don’t dwell on them. Telling the same sad story over and over is not helpful it can establish and cement a relationship to your pain. Better to make a simple statement of how you feel at the moment. For example, say, “I just had a sad feeling of missing him.”
- Time doesn’t heal—actions do. The myth that time heals a broken heart is just that, a myth. Time can’t heal a broken heart any more than air can jump into a flat tire. Time goes by. It’s the actions you take within time that can help you feel better.
Death of a Spouse or Divorce:
- Just because you feel lonely doesn’t mean you’re ready to start dating. Don’t start dating while your heart is still broken, or you will guarantee that the next relationship will fail. Being prepared to date again is a function of the actions you take within time to repair your heart – whether you’re dealing with a death or divorce.
- Don’t get too busy—avoid hyperactivity. Be careful not to get too busy. Being super active distracts you, it doesn’t help you deal with your broken heart.
- Maintain your normal routines. Adapting to the changes in your life following a death or a divorce is an enormous adjustment. You are learning how to move from being with someone to being alone. It’s never a good idea to add a host of other changes while you’re trying to adapt to so much disruption in your life.
- Go through the pain, not under, over, or around it. It’s very tempting to try to avoid the pain associated with a broken heart. But it’s also a form of self-punishment. Whenever you skirt the pain, all you’re doing is pushing it away temporarily. It will always come back to haunt you.
- Find practical guidance, or you will sabotage your future. While the grief of a broken heart is the normal reaction to the death of your mate or the end of a romantic relationship, it’s constructive to find effective tools to help you discover and complete everything that was left emotionally unfinished. Otherwise, you will drag your emotional baggage into the next relationship and ruin it before it starts.
For most people, the first holiday season after a death or a divorce is the most painful. But that’s not true for everyone. For many, the second, third, and subsequent years are excruciating. Since time doesn’t heal emotional wounds, people often report feeling worse the more years that go by. No matter when your loss occurred, it’s most important that you become aware that recovery is possible and to learn which actions will help you.
If you’re dealing with a death, go to the library or bookstore and get a copy of The Grief Recovery Handbook. The principles and actions of The Grief Recovery Method have been used by more than a half-million people to help deal with the impact of the death of someone important to them.
If you’re dealing with the aftermath of a divorce or romantic breakup, go to the library or bookstore and get a copy of Moving On. The principles and actions in it will help you deal with your broken heart.
If your children are struggling with a loss of any type and any level of emotional intensity, go to the library or bookstore and get a copy of When Children Grieve.
P.S. If you are ready to take action towards resolving what is emotionally incomplete for your children (and receive grief education like never before), there is still time to save your spot, at a reduced rate, for a future Helping Children with Loss group program. Click HERE to reserve your spot!
P.P.S. Also, just for funsies, if you KNOW you want to (or plan to) participate in a future in-person grief recovery program (1-on-1 or group), here’s your incentive to commit yourself and your heart. Click HERE to check out this and the other discounts i’m offering through Cyber Monday (12/2). There is no expiration on this offer – so, the next time I provide a group in your community, you’ll be all set. Or, we can set up a 1-on-1 asap, too. I actually need two more 1-on-1 clients. Then I will be able to pursue additional training that will enable me to offer grief recovery ONLINE (which will be HUGE, given my geographical location and the interest I have throughout the state of ND and beyond)!
*portions of this blog post are adapted from The Grief Recovery Institute blog
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