As the year draws to a close, we enter a time of connection with friends and family and reflection on the year that’s passed. Whatever challenges we may have faced throughout the year, be it new health concerns, a career change, entering a new stage of life, or the focus of this article: enduring the loss of a loved one, these problems often rear their heads in new ways in these final months of the year.
Even if you thought you had healed from the pain of your loss, or at least made some significant progress, the holidays have a way of transporting you right back into the middle of your pain. But why?
It may seem intuitive that this happens because of the way that we store our memories in our brain. For better or worse, it is often traumatic events that take precedence at the forefront of our minds, that are most easily accessible for recall. However, this process that was once vital to our survival, can easily become a deterrent to any sort of forward progress, causing us to turn inward, isolate, or even “shut down” entirely. Trauma has a way of keeping us trapped in faulty beliefs about ourselves as incompetent, others as wholly untrustworthy, and the world as dangerous and irredeemably so. Of course, not all experiences of loss are considered traumatic, although well-respected scholar George L. Engel, M.D. once compared the mourning of a loved one’s death to be similar to the healing of physical wounds, marking the process of loss as psychologically traumatic.
All this in combination with the holiday season, when we tend to engage in the same traditions year after year, often triggers memories of years past, and serve as a reminder of those presently missing. Any sort of deviation from the norm may force us to confront the loss in ways where we had previously been able to avoid it. What we are often left with is an overwhelming sense of loss. And when our loved one has chosen to take their own life, the feeling becomes further complicated. Along with a sense of guilt or shame that you could have done something different to prevent the loss, you may feel helpless when you realize that perhaps you couldn’t have.
We all want to know what we can do to make this pain go away: how can we avoid the heartache that surfaces at this time of year?
Truthfully, nothing will make the pain go away fully, but there are some helpful things to remember:
Grief is Not a Tidy, Orderly Process
With no disrespect to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, an image that resonates with our experience regarding the grieving process is not one of linear growth and progression through the stages, but rather one depicting an entire mess of feelings and emotions. When you lose an important figure in your life, you cannot expect to simply move on without putting in the work required to do so. Becoming angry with yourself, whether for moving on too fast, or because you haven’t been able to move on fast enough, or otherwise falling into the trap of self-judgment, is actually likely only making things worse.
Allow yourself to feel a whole range of emotions. Remind yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed that these emotions are only temporary, but that they will always catch up with you if you don’t take the time to hear them out. Practicing mindful self-awareness and perhaps more importantly self-kindness, will ultimately be the most important exercise throughout the entire grieving process.
There is No ‘Right’ Way to Grieve
Individuals may choose different methods to process through the loss and ways of working through their emotions. For example, parents may wish to remember the loss of a child differently from one another, just as siblings may take different approaches to grieving a parent. One may want to recount old memories or hold onto important memorabilia, latching onto their belief that they are honoring their loved one by sharing their stories and talking about them.
It is not hard to see how this approach may be at odds with those who may want to do all they can to throw themselves into creating new memories by starting new routines and traditions. Especially during the holidays, some may prefer this approach in order to avoid or distract themselves from the pain, and process how they feel when they are apart from the family unit.
Neither individual is ‘correct’ in their approach, but both suffer if they are unwilling to ask for what they need, or to meet the stated needs of their family member or partner in the loss. On that note, give yourself and your family the time that you each may need, individually and collectively, to process through what the loss means for your family and for your future.
It is Okay to Ask for What You Need
In the wake of a loss, many individuals make the mistake of holing up, isolating themselves, and refusing to accept the bids for connection from others. This is what we typically think constitutes the problematic symptom of “self-isolation”. However, there is perhaps another, even more destructive type of silence and isolation that can affect us. Some may, instead of the traditional means of withdrawing, instead place unrealistic expectations on others regarding how they expect to be pursued after the loss. They wait for others to always ask how they’re doing, or to make plans for connection, and become upset when others forget, or fail to meet their untold expectations.
Logically speaking, they may be right, others may have “failed” to be there for them in all the ways that they needed, but they also had a role to play. Instead of asking for what they need from others, they choose instead to wait until they are disappointed, and subsequently express their emotions as anger instead, or even helplessness. Rather than opening doors for communication and togetherness, these actions tend to only drive disconnection.
Some permissions that you may need to remind yourself this holiday season:
- If you need a “time-out” or just to take time by yourself in order to process through the feelings that arise in the moment, you are entitled to do so.
- If you need to say “no” to some family obligations, or enforce other limits about how you choose to spend your time, it is okay.
- If you would like to start a new tradition in order to honor your loved one, there is nothing wrong with bringing this up with loved ones.
- If you would like to change up the family routine entirely, this is also something that you should feel comfortable discussing with those whom it affects most.
Ultimately, being true to what you need after a loved one has passed is the goal. Planning ahead, spending time thinking about what you want from the holiday season this year, and getting to a place of honesty about your expectations from others are the key to having a successful year-end, and starting the new year off right.