Complicated Grief and the Holidays
5 tips for dealing with memories of a loved one’s suicide or traumatic death during the holiday season
By Jennie Bedsworth, LCSW
Do you dread the holidays? You’re not alone. For many who have lost loved ones to suicide or other type of unexpected death, this can obviously be a very difficult time.
It’s normal to have thoughts of family and friends who’ve passed on during the holidays. After all, this is traditionally a time to spend with family, remember old traditions and celebrate togetherness. If one of your tribe is gone due to a disturbing event like suicide or unexpected death, this can bring out old or recent feelings more intensely.
There’s something therapists call “traumatic grief.” This can be when the circumstances of a death are getting in the way of the natural grief process. The traumatic part and difficult memories of the death gets us stuck, getting in the way of healing and grieving. Sometimes people will stay in the shocked phase for months or years, just not understanding what happened. This can occur with kids, teens and adults. Traumatic grief is difficult any time of year, but worse as we roll into the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah season.
Tips for Coping with Grief During the Holidays
While this time will still be difficult, there are some things you can do to help yourself, or suggest to others.
- Take charge of the day and season. Don’t pretend you’re not thinking of your loved one. Rather than trying to forget about your pain and loss, plan something in his or her honor. It could be a special donation, a memory corner near the dinner table that everyone can add to, or a special reading, or poem. Take charge of the special event and your memories rather than letting the holidays creep up and control you.
- Assume other people mean well. While it seems like others may be forgetting all about your loved one and what you may be going though, that’s often not the case. They may just not be sure if bringing it up may make you feel worse, or they may think changing the subject and cheering you up is the better option. Or, they might be dealing with their own unresolved grief and confusion. Either way, try assuming friends and family mean well or ask them for what you need. Just because they don’t say the right things doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care. If you are that family member or friend, you might gently ask for what your loved one needs and how you might help and support him or her during this time.
- Take care of yourself. Remember the essentials of self care, even if you’re feeling depressed or are dealing with trauma. Try to eat healthy, sleep if you can, get exercise, and socialize some, even if you don’t feel like it. These small things will give you the energy to heal or seek help. Avoid drugs and alcohol which usually numb feelings and drag out healing.
- Write or draw it out. Writing has an amazing way of helping us process and purge our feelings. Don’t think of it as writing a formal book or homework assignment. Just scribble if you want and don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. You can even tear it up when you’re done. You might write about your pain, anger, memories and anything else that comes to mind. The important thing is to get it out, rather than keeping it in.
- Seek help. If you’re struggling with guilt, shame, blocked memories, anxiety, nightmares, depression, thoughts of harming yourself, or feel like you’re just not getting better, you might need some help in the grieving process. These are symptoms of a type of post-traumatic stress many people get following a complicated death. Sometimes we need a little help getting over that hump and making sense of what happened so that we can eventually get to the loving, fond memories of our lost family member or friend. There are therapists who specifically deal with trauma and traumatic grief due to the disturbing loss of a loved one. They can help support you and offer solutions to get through your trauma and grief.
Most importantly, remember the most painful feelings won’t last forever, and you can and will feel better. Your lost loved one would likely want you to find peace and healing, so it’s more than okay to want that for yourself.
Counseling For Complicated Grief
If you are needing a little extra support to help you cope with your grief this holiday season, please contact Aspire Counseling. We are a Columbia, MO area counseling clinic and can help you get through this holiday season.