When Grief Comes Home for the Holidays

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For those who are grieving a loss, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time. Gathering together with friends and family only emphasizes the absence of their deceased loved one all the more. However, there are some things you can do to help them through this difficult time.

Understanding Grief

The first step to comforting a loved one is to understand what they are going through. Grief is a process made up of five distinct stages. These stages can occur before or after the death has occurred and will apply to both the person who is dying and those who love them. All people are unique in their grieving process, but this is the usual order:

  • Denial and Isolation - A person in this stage talks about the future, avoids talking about the illness, blames the doctor for the illness, claims that the test results are wrong, and may avoid family and friends who want to talk about these matters.
  • Anger - This stage typically occurs when the person has come to terms with the fact that they or a loved is actually dying. This person begins to ask "Why me?". They may question religious beliefs. They may accuse family members or friends of uncaring attitudes.
  • Bargaining - At this stage, a person has vented all their anger and now tries to make a deal with God that if they change their lives or fulfill some other promise they will be allowed to live or to live long enough to complete some special task.
  • Depression - At this stage, the person realizes that death will be inevitable. If the person has already died, this is when the reality of death has begun to sink in for loved ones. There are two types of depression that can occur during this stage. Depression may be due to the change of circumstances (financial, family role, intimacy, independence) or it may be due to the loss itself. This stage is what is referred to as Holiday Blues when it occurs around the holidays.
  • Acceptance - For the person who is dying, this is will be exhibited as a decrease in interest in worldly events, a desire to be left alone, a decreased desire for communication, and an increase in detachment from loved ones. For the survivors, this will be a time when healing begins.

What to Do

  • Be a good listener - Your loved one may need to talk about what has happened, their feelings about it, or just to reminisce about their lives together.
  • Provide reassurance - it is very common for a person to feel guilt, that they could have done more. Let them know that they did what they could.
  • Be available - This is especially true immediately after the death and during holidays and other special events when the loss is most keenly felt.
  • Help out with errands and other tasks - Depending on the situation, a grieving person may feel too overwhelmed with emotion to do even simple tasks; they may be having to deal with funeral arrangements or medical care; or they may be having to take up the slack for a spouse who is no longer around to help them.
  • Be patient - If a loved one refuses to accept your invitations to dinner, etc., be patient and keep asking. In time they will be ready.
  • Be understanding - The grieving person may be angry and upset and take their anger out on you. Understand that they are going through a difficult time and don't hold it against them.
  • Keep in touch - Write letters, send sympathy cards or flowers, or call periodically.
  • Pray - If your loved one is not religious or is offended by prayer, pray for them when you are alone. Prayer has been known to have a powerful influence, even if the object of your prayers doesn't believe in it!

What Not to Do

  • Do not avoid them - Don't worry if you don't know the right thing to do or say. Your presence or simplest of gestures is all that is required to help.
  • Don't pressure them to stop grieving - Each person grieves in their own time and their own way. Let them cry, scream, or sit quietly while you hold them. Whatever it takes to get their emotions out is okay.
  • Don't hide your feelings - Don't hide your grief or avoid the subject because you don't want to upset them. Instead grieve together, hold each other and cry, or talk about the times you both spent with the loved. If you don't mention the person at all, it may, in fact, feel to the grieving as if you don't even care or understand how they are feeling. Open the communication lines.
  • Don't advise them to let go of clothing or personal effects before they're ready - Each person grieves in their own time. Out of sight out of mind does not apply to someone you've loved deeply.
  • Do not say "You can have another baby" - Each child is a unique being. One baby can never replace another.
  • Don't say, "It was for the best" - Realizing this doesn't diminish the pain and sense of loss.
  • Don't say "I know how you feel" unless you really do - These are just hollow words unless you have been in the same situation and can offer suggestions about what helped you to heal.
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