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Holidays can be time of grief

Date: 11/21/2011

SPRINGFIELD — At this time of year, a common question from individuals who are experiencing grief is, “How will I get through the holidays?”

“There are many special holidays and anniversaries and these can all be challenging, but from Thanksgiving to the holiday period afterwards it can be especially difficult. Awareness of the issues and having a plan can help you deal with the added stress of this time of year,” Marlene Quinlan LICSW, oncology social worker, Baystate Regional Cancer Program, said.

Planning for the approaching holidays is the first step in developing your coping strategy, Quinlan noted.

She said there is really no one right way to deal with the holidays, but people can begin by making decisions that are comfortable for them and their families. Use your awareness that things are different to help you plan what makes sense.

Holiday preparations, traditions, and family time may all feel less than normal. It is also important to remember that your emotions and energy level are strongly connected. Good self-care routines are important as you prepare and deal with the holiday season. Get plenty of rest and pay attention to healthy eating. Plan self-care activities that will feed your mind, body and spirit. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.

As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them.

Thanksgiving is the first major holiday of the season. In the spirit of the holiday, Quinlan suggested turning to feelings of gratitude.

“Gratitude is a very healing emotion. With that in mind, you can decide to practice not just on Thanksgiving, but every day. As an oncology social worker, I frequently recommend that individuals practice a gratitude-centering exercise on a daily basis,” Quinlan said.

She suggested beginning by focusing on gratitude for the first 20 minutes of the day. This will serve to center yourself in gratitude. Then, at the end of 20 minutes, take one “gratitude” with you for the day. Throughout the remainder of the day, if you notice that you are having distressing or sad thoughts, shift your thinking to the pre-selected gratitude. This may help you manage your emotions during the holidays. That which you focus on, expands. Let gratitude be your focus and watch it grow.

Gift-giving is one of the long-established holiday traditions, which can be stressful due to the cost and physical demands of shopping. Gift-giving can be very stressful under normal circumstances, but if you are grieving, it can be even more stressful. And, today’s economy adds even more to the stress, noted Quinlan, who suggests practicing smart shopping.

“Shop early and change your shopping routine. Order by catalog or online, or, if you like, you can substitute a donation to a worthy cause and limit your gift buying to one or two significant people,” said Quinlan.

The Baystate Medical Center social worker said it is important to understand that the stores are filled with holiday cheer and greetings, and you may want to be prepared for your emotional reaction.

“It will also help to be ready with a greeting response that you are comfortable using,” Quinlan said.

It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions, suggests Quinlan. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you. For example, she cited serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them, Quinlan said.

“Remember that your family and friends gathered around you may also be experiencing their feelings of loss, and it is healthy to share your thoughts at this time,” Quinlan said.

Together you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums, making or displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased.

“The holiday season can magnify feelings of loss and sadness. This is not a sign of regression or poor management of grief. Absence of the loved one will cause pain and distressing feelings,” Quinlan said.

Allowing emotions to be expressed is helpful. Anticipation of the holidays can create more stress than the holidays themselves. Being prepared can help you deal with these feelings. On the other hand, the holidays may also offer a reprieve from sad feelings, and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you, Quinlan noted.

he oncology social worker suggests undertaking daily journaling for the holiday season.

“This is a way of disclosing your thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative. Devoting 20 minutes a day for several days of the week to this activity can help you process your emotions and counteracts the effects of the stress,” Quinlan said.

“It is normal to forget the grief for a moment and simply let yourself experience the magic of the season. The grateful heart experiences much joy, and as we are gathered with loved ones, we can be grateful for all persons in our lives, past, present and future,” she added.

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