By Alyssa Warmland
The holidays can bring up a lot of feelings, especially when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one. Whether it’s the first holiday season without someone, the holidays mark a time where someone you love died, or it’s just hard to be around celebration when you’re not feeling celebratory, December can feel heavy.
These are a few tips for grieving during the holidays:
Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel however you feel.
Feeling sad or mad? Feeling happy- and guilty for not feeling worse? Whatever comes up for you is normal. It’s okay to sit with your feelings, to give them some space when it feels right, and also to compartmentalize them if you feel like that’s best in the moment. You can acknowledge your feelings, put them in your pocket, and hold on to them during the family dinner if you want to. You can take them out of your pocket and spend time with them later. Grief is unique, and can show up in unexpected ways. It’s okay to feel however you feel.
Reach out for connection.
Sometimes we worry that we’ll make someone else upset if we mention our grief, or if we show up in a way that isn’t particularly festive. The truth is, the people who care about us want to hold space for us, even when we’re grieving. Connection can help us feel better.
Find ways to incorporate your loved one(s) into celebrations.
Did your dad have a favourite side dish your family always served at dinner? Did Oma make sugar cookies every year? Did your sister always compliment you when you wore red? Consider serving dad’s dish, or baking Oma’s cookies, or wearing red.
Share stories about your loved ones.
Sometimes it can be tempting to pretend the people we love haven’t died. As if, by not talking about them, we can pretend they’re still around. In fact, sharing stories about them can help honour them and to feel their presence. Remembering our loved ones out loud in connection with other people can feel healing.
Watch/listen/read other peoples’ stories and insights about grief.
At griefstories.org , we host stories and insights from people with lived experience in grief, as well as healthcare professionals’ insights on grief. These videos, podcasts, and blog posts are available for free 24/7, anywhere you can access the internet. Our hope is that this content may help you feel less alone.
Listen to how your body feels. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You are safe and you are worthy of operating with integrity toward yourself. Grief can be hard, and it’s okay to be gentle with yourself as you move in and through it – even during the holidays. Set whatever boundaries feel right for you. There are no rules here. You’ve got this.
By Carrie Batt, Grief Educator
My son says I am a mover and a shaker. He tells his friends that because of my extensive travels abroad and my volunteering. When his friends ask: “Why did she do that?” he always tells them “Because my mom believes that ‘anything is possible’.” As I look back on my journey, I know where I picked up this motto. When my baby brother was born, the doctors told my parents: “he will not walk, talk, nor know who you are”. From that day on my parents embodied that motto ‘anything is possible’ and in the end my brother does far more than walk and talk. This circumstance introduced me to the disability community knowing that people with disabilities deserve and can do more. Interestingly, I have had the privilege of working within the developmental sector in a variety of positions for more than thirty years.
In 2018, I added to my parents’ motto ‘anything is possible’ and included ‘everyone is worth it’. I added those words to the motto right after I had attended a kintsugi workshop offered by Rami Shami, a prominent member within the deathcare community. As soon as I realized that Rami had spent the last 30 years caring for the dying. I inquired about his experience in death, dying and disability. Rami unfortunately, had no experience in supporting people with a disability who were dying. Upon learning about the sheer lack of support and expertise on this topic, I proceeded to complete the end-of-life training with Beyond Yonder Community Deathcare program. Soon after, SEOL Care was created, which offers a disability-sensitive approach to death, dying, and disability.
It has become clear to me over time that we have much work to do to ensure the delivery of disability-sensitive grief literacy and grief support. In March of 2022 my proposal for four 1-hour sessions was approved, we provided the program for 20 participants. My heart was full in each session.
My heart remains full of hope that conversations, education, and expertise about disability sensitive end of life care and grief support will gain momentum as more and more people join in on this vital conversation.
Currently, there are several rays of hope that suggest grief education and support can and will be offered in a more inclusive way. As a certified grief educator, I now offer online disability-sensitive grief support services for individuals and groups. My employer is offering disability-sensitive grief literacy sessions. The Bereavement Ontario Network has shared information through their newsletter and in a network webinar, where the gentleman I support and I were the guest speakers. Bereaved Families of Ontario have been receiving multiple requests to provide grief resources for the neurodivergent community. Additionally, Bereaved Families of Ontario are seeking out speakers with lived experience related to grief and under-represented communities for their grief literacy series. I remain grateful knowing that these are hopeful times, and these examples are a positive step in the right direction.
Rachel Herrington – Social Service Worker Graduate, Third Year Psychology Student, Equal Rights and Community Advocate
It has been 10 years since my grandmother passed away and it never fails, every year leading up to her birthday I spend weeks with a pit of sadness and remorse in my stomach. I spend my days feeling this way and not understanding why then something makes the date catch my eye and it hits – It’s her birthday.
When we are grieving, some days are more difficult than others. Grief comes in waves like the sea and can feel like an intertwining labyrinth of emotions. Birthdays, anniversaries, and special dates that are associated with our loved one who has died can contribute to more emotionally intense days which can be worsened through the anticipation and “what ifs” of the upcoming day. These difficult days can leave us feeling defeated and it can almost feel like we’ve taken two steps backward in our grieving process, but grief does not have a timeline, and these feelings of setbacks are opportunities for healing.
Before the Day:
Communicate and set boundaries with others – think about how you want to approach the day and share your wants, needs, and desires with others. Clearly communicating your wants and needs with others will allow the opportunity for you to set the expectation for the day which can help relieve the intense feelings of anticipation.
Remember there is no right or wrong way to celebrate special days – It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no written code or rule on how these special days are to be approached. However you decide to approach the day is the right way.
On the Day:
Allow yourself the opportunity for space from others – it is important to allow there to be an opportunity for you to step away and have a safe space to feel your emotions if you need to. If you are attending someone else’s home for the occasion plan a way that you can step away or leave with ease if you need to.
Find something that grounds you when intense emotions arise – if intense emotions are arising it can be helpful to find something to help ground you in the moment. This could be a physical item such as a small trinket in your pocket that you can hold, squeeze, and focus on in your hand, or it can be through positive mental imagery, deep breathing, and/or stress relieving acupressure, etc.
Take deep breaths – practicing deep breathing can help reduce stress and can increase resiliency during highly emotional or stressful situations.
If things don’t go as planned, that is okay – grief is a process with no timelines or set of rules, and sometimes things do not always go the way we plan and that is okay. Allow yourself time, patience, and understanding while you adapt to living with your unique grief experience.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
Grief often comes with powerful, unpredictable emotional shifts that can be painful to experience. While it’s important to find ways to sit with these feelings, to acknowledge the pain of grief and accept loss, it’s also necessary to find ways to ease and manage the pain. There are several simple activities that you can explore to help.
Ground Yourself in the Present
Use your senses to remind you that you are safe, here and now. When we are feeling intense emotions we are often caught reliving a moment in the past, or we are fretting over some anticipated event in the future. We can’t undo the past and we can’t control the future, which only intensifies these difficult feelings. When you use your senses, it pauses your racing thoughts and can help calm the turbulent feelings.
Notice the things in your environment you can see. Count the number of items that begin with the letter A, then the letter B, or count the number of green things.
Notice what you feel around your body. Sense the ground under your feet, the chair under your bottom, the clothes against your skin, the sun on your cheeks, or the breeze in your hair.
Notice what you hear. Voices. Background noises of the building such as the furnace or a fan or the hum of fluorescent lights. Music. Nature sounds.
Notice what you smell. Is the air stale or fresh? Is there some overpowering smell, or not much smell at all?
Notice if you have a taste in your mouth. Is it the sweetness or savoury taste of something you just ate, the minty freshness of toothpaste or gum, or perhaps the sour taste of morning breath.
A deep slow breath can activate the calming centre of our nervous system. When you breathe deeply and exhale slowly, you set off a cascade of calming chemicals in your brain that help ease tension and stress.
Try 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale as you count to four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale as you count to eight. Repeating this breath three times takes less than one minute, and when you practice it often you develop a muscle memory that helps you access this deep, slow breath during times of strife.
Indulge in Self Care
Enjoy a cup of your favourite herbal tea or soup. Take a hot bath, perhaps adding Epsom salts. Or a shower with your favourite body wash. The warmth and scent of these activities will work together to activate the same calming centre in your nervous system that is affected by deep, slow breathing.
Plan Intentional Change
Sometimes our routines cue us to experience distressing memories and disturbing thoughts and feelings. When this is the case, it can help to examine your schedule and activities. What seems to upset you? Is there a way to pause the activity or shift it to another time of day to try to break the connection with the difficult experience?
It’s true that we can’t help our thoughts and feelings. It’s also true that we can develop responses to the experience of intense grief that help us feel more in control as we heal.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
When you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, one of the most difficult things you will go through is trying to find out what helps you adjust to the loss. This can be compounded when others around you don’t understand what you’re going through, and don’t know how to help you. Although you may not have much energy, and you may be reluctant to become a teacher, it may be just what your family and friends need to help you through your grief.
The concept of “pocket phrases” can be quite useful in helping others learn what you need as you grieve. These are statements that you practice ahead of time so that they come to you effortlessly in the moments when you are upset but still need to ask for someone’s help or understanding.
“That’s not helpful.” Usually, our friends and family are trying to help, however their actions may have the opposite effect. With practice, you can develop the ability to say this in a calm, confident voice that halts comments or behaviour that you find hurtful.
“Grief isn’t easy, but it is necessary.” Well-meaning people sometimes want us to move through grief quickly when that is just not possible. You can remind them that it’s normal to feel a full range of feelings after a loss and you don’t need to ‘cheer up’.
“I’m adapting. It takes time to adjust.” When someone in your circle of acquaintances asks how you’re doing, you can use this phrase to remind them that grief is a process. You can ask them directly to have patience with your intense feelings, the changes in your routines and at the same time let them know you’ll never be quite the same again.
“I’m not strong. I’m just doing what I must.” This phrase can be helpful when people praise your ability to function in routine tasks and situations. You may want them to understand that although you may look well on the outside, there’s still a whirlwind of emotion and distress raging unpredictably inside you.
“I like it when you say their name and we talk about them.” You can let people know they don’t have to be afraid to mention your loved one. If you want to share stories, and hear stories from others, you may need to give permission with a clear, direct statement such as this so that people aren’t afraid they will hurt you more by talking about them.
These sample statements can be a good starting point for developing your own useful “pocket phrases” to help teach the people in your life how to help you as you grieve. Remember that the more you practice the things you wish you could say, the easier it will become to pull them out in a peaceful and positive way when needed.
Jackie – Expressive arts can help when grief is confusing
Jackie talks about how working with an artist therapist helped her after her sister and mother died
Jackie – Finger painting and grief
Jackie discusses how finger painting help her with her feelings while she was grieving the loss of her mother and sister
Amber – My Story
Amber talks about the traumatic death of her father in an explosion and being 17
Marija – Latent grief
Marija explains latent grief
Valmy – Music for me and for others
Valmy talks about music she has created around her loss and how it helps her connect with others
Valmy – The power of lyrics
Valmy explains how lyrics can take the pressure off if you don’t know how to communicate. how you are feeling
Valmy – Creating a song to open dialogue
Valmy talks about how music helps her process feelings and also helps her express her feelings to others