A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Wellness Matters: Dealing with grief during holidays is hard, but there are ways to cope

By Blake L. Jones
Access Wellness Group

The holidays are about love, light and happiness right? For many of us that is true, but for those who are dealing with grief it can be a time of intense sadness.

I have worked with many clients over the years who tell me they dread the holidays because it reminds them of their loved ones. This column shares some tips about how to make it through the holidays when you are dealing with loss.

1. Take time to be still. Kentucky’s native son and author, Silas House, recently wrote an article for the New York Times in which he encouraged young writers to engage in the practice of simply “being.” That is, instead of going to writing workshops, he said that writers should become accustomed to observing—in minute detail—the details of the world around them. This requires stillness, something that does not come naturally in our rushed society. My clients often try to “distract” themselves into feeling better after a loss. Though this may be useful at times, I would also say that it’s important to slow down during the holidays and take some time to rest and reflect.

2. Find a tradition that suits you. Many of my clients who are affected by loss tell me that it is helpful for them to find some sort of ritual or tradition in which they honor the deceased. One person lights a candle at meal times. Another puts a favorite golf club on her mantle during Christmas. If you can, find some tangible way to connect to your loved one. The mere act of using your senses to connect with him or her may be helpful.

3. Don’t neglect your own wellness. I say this one so many times to my clients, I feel like I should just have a recording to play! The holidays are the exact WRONG time to neglect your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Numerous studies have shown the benefit of regular physical activity in relieving stress, anxiety, even severe depression. Even if you don’t feel like it, make yourself take a walk around the block or a quick swim at the Y. If you take a yoga class or volunteer at your church, don’t stop. Make your personal wellness a top priority this holiday season.

4. If you have children, remember their developmental stage. Over the years, I have consulted with numerous families who have lost a loved one. Sometimes the parents are frustrated because a young child will not sleep alone or a teenager is having angry outbursts. I encourage the parents to think about their child’s developmental stage and to react appropriately. Encourage your teen or pre-teen to verbalize feelings, but provide space if needed. Create routine for young children and give them plenty of opportunities to keep your interactions with them short and as concrete as possible. This is a good resource: www.griefspeaks.com

5. Access your resources: Sometime people who are stuck in grief feel all alone. It’s hard for them to realize that there are millions of people in the world just like them. There is something about community that is healing and nurturing. You can find community at your church, synagogue or temple, by talking to a close friend, or by unburdening yourself to a trained counselor. I LOVE Hospice of the Bluegrass, and send many of my clients to them for grief counseling, support groups and many other resources (they even have a scrapbooking class and a camp for kids). You can find out more information about Hospice here.

6. Remember that there is not “one right way” to grieve. In her book entitled On Death and Dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross gave the world a ground-breaking theory about how people tend to grieve. She contended that people tend to go through these stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. She later said that these were not a complete list of emotions and that people don’t go through them sequentially. Although Kubler-Ross’ theory has been widely discussed by the public, I’m afraid that some people look at it and say, “I’m not doing this right!” My advice to my clients is to let your grief process be your own; let it take you where it wants to. You may feel angry, sad, relieved and in denial all in the same day, and that’s OK.

Also remember that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between prolonged grief and major depression. If it has been weeks or months since your loss and you have a profoundly depressed mood, sleeping or eating difficulties, or suicidal thoughts, a licensed mental health professional can guide you in the right direction.

Blake Jones, MSW, LCSW, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical social worker at Access Wellness Group, a Lexington-based group providing counseling and addiction treatment services to individuals, families and Employee Assistance Program client companies. Jones specializes in couples counseling, men’s issues and work-related problems.  He is a graduate of Berea College and the University of Kentucky.  Jones, who lives in Woodford County with his wife of 17 years and their two sons, is also a singer-songwriter.

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