I have a friend who lost a loved one on Christmas Day and has been unable to celebrate Christmas ever since. I have another friend whose family decided that it was important to celebrate each and every holiday and milestone in memory of their late loved one. The same with another friend who always celebrates her anniversary even though her husband died a few years ago.
We all grieve in different ways and no one way is right or wrong, according to Carol Schoneberg, an end-of-life educator and bereavement support counselor at Hospice of Southern Maine. I can vouch for her expertise and her tenderness because she helped me and some of my siblings when we were struggling with the death of our father in December 2009.
Getting through the holidays can be especially difficult for many people who are grieving, whether their loved one passed away yesterday or many years ago. Carol has some tips that may help you navigate through those difficult times.
An important part of grieving at any time of the year is listening to your own gut, not to what anybody else says you should do or feel.
For instance, during the holidays, you may find yourself feeling both grief and joy. Feeling moments of joy amid grief is simply a human quality, says Carol, but it can make many people feel guilty.
“The classic,” she said, “is the first time they’re somewhere and catch themselves laughing and they’re mortified. They’re afraid that someone would notice them and think, ‘oh, my gosh, she doesn’t even care.’ When moments of joy arrive, and they probably will at different points, I encourage people to allow themselves to embrace it and to embrace their grief as that appears, as well.”
The holidays may elicit moments of joy, but they can also be very triggering, even years later.
“If it’s a central person in your life,” says Carol, “when that holiday starts or the first smell of it is in the air, or you see or hear the first commercial, or somebody says, ‘oh, my sister’s coming to visit for the holidays,’ it’s there. The grief starts rising to the surface again.”
If someone says they just want to go to bed from the week before Thanksgiving until Jan. 2, that’s understandable, says Carol. So is wanting to make a big deal of it being the first holiday without your loved one and to invite people to share stories.
Unsolicited advice about grief
How you grieve is your business, but there will always be people, seemingly well-meaning people, who will question your actions.
Don’t listen to them, says Carol. You know yourself better than anyone else does.
“No matter how much people may project and think they know what’s best for you, you need to listen to yourself,” she advises. “Do what brings you comfort and makes you feel better that isn’t hurting anyone else. That to me is how to live with our grief.”
Unfortunately, sometimes people will say things that are hurtful or unkind. “Are you still grieving?” comes to mind or “It’s been six months, aren’t you over it yet?” The best approach when responding to such questions is honesty.
Carol says, “When someone says something, and they do all the time — in support groups, people share all the stupid hurtful things people say with good intentions — I would encourage them to say, ‘it isn’t helpful when you say that.’”
The same approach works for people who think you’re not grieving enough.
“If somebody wants to go back to work the next day, if that’s their coping mechanism, that’s fine,” says Carol. “They have a right to do it however they do it. If they ask a friend or professional for advice or guidance, that’s one thing, but nobody wants unsolicited advice. Nobody.”
How to be helpful
If you are truly worried about people who seem to be struggling with grief, there is a kinder and gentler way to reach out without expressing your personal opinions. Try telling them you’re there for them if they need someone. Carol’s suggestion is, “Say something like, ‘if you ever want to talk or share your grief, I’ll just listen and if I can ever help in any way, if you want something and you don’t know how to find someone, I hope you would let me know.’”
When we’re grieving, it’s a time when we can feel incredibly judged, as if we were under a microscope. If someone is doing that to you, even if it’s someone you love, Carol says it may be helpful to distance yourself from that person for a while: “When we are deeply grieving, we know right away who brings us comfort and who is not going to be able to support us in the way that we need, which is to simply listen and be present.”