A mourner's guide to surviving the holidays

The holidays aren't always happy. Sometimes they're full of grief. That's okay.

My mother, a devout Christian, was born on Dec. 25. For our family, that day rocked every single year. We had the tree, the stockings, and the presents in the morning, the awe-inspiring music in church at noon, and mom's birthday party at night. Boom! A perfect day, always engineered by mom herself.

Until the year she died.

A force of nature, my mother accepted nature's call to the inevitable end in the fall of 2001. Floored by grief, the rest of the family was all there at Christmas that year, but not really. Our hearts and minds were otherwise occupied.

And that's okay.

Grief is a part of life. Loss can be particularly hard during the holidays, when everyone else seems to be so full of happiness. But that's okay. A mourner has opportunities and options to deal with grief in a positive way, even during the holidays.

I asked Clare Rountree, a cognitive behavioral psychologist, to help unpack the grieving process a little, and to offer some advice to those who are mourning a loss this holiday season. Take heart:

1. Accept that this is normal

"We all experience grief and loss," Rountree says. "Everyone does. Around the holidays, everyone is supposed to be 'joyous and merry.' Well … that may not be your state of mind if you are mourning."

"When we experience loss, it's normal to have situational depression. But that is just that; it's environmental. Trust that you will feel better spontaneously, once you have processed your grief," says Rountree.

In other words: We're supposed to be sad when we lose a loved one. Don't fight it. It will get better. But in the meantime, there are practical steps you can take to help you through the holidays.

2. Go out. Do something.

When you're sad, it's tempting to decline all invitations and curl up in your flannel jammies for the entire holiday season. Don't.

"Make some micro-commitments to yourself; tell yourself, 'Today I'm going to …' and then follow through," Rountree says.

"Just go to one thing. Be behaviorally active in some way."

Accept an invitation. Answer an email, a letter, or a text. Forge connections, which are critical to well-being at all times, but especially during periods of grief.

Rountree recommends volunteerism as a great way to forge healing connections. "It's hard to be miserable when you're helping someone else."

3. Start small

"I like to help people break grief down into bite-sized parts," says Rountree.

Was your dad a big football fan? Ask one of his friends to attend a game with you in his honor. Did your sister love to bake? How about asking her kids over to make some cookies, and deliver those to a local shelter.

If you've endured the tragedy of losing a child, think about what made her life impactful … and then act on that, even if the action is small. Attend a school function. A soccer game. Give her skis, her favorite bracelet, or his collection of Lego ™ minifigs to a friend who will use and cherish them.

The fact that your loved one is gone does not negate the life she lived. Use the holidays as an excuse to honor that life.

4. Seek help if you need it

"Don't be afraid to get professional help," says Rountree. "Our culture gets kind of 'freaked out' about death, and I find that a lot of people don't understand the grieving process."

"While forging personal connection is important, sometimes other people won't know what to say or how to offer you comfort. A good therapist is trained to do just that."

In the years since my mother's death, our extended family has grown and established other holiday traditions. They're not all religious; some of us have converted to other faiths, and some now identify as atheists. But we all celebrate this time of year with a very special regard for the woman who helped us become the people we are, even as we raise the next generation of our family.


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