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The holiday season can be particularly difficult for anyone grieving. There are everyday responsibilities like paying bills, going to work, or raising kids. When you add on the financial pressures of gift-giving, dealing with expectations of carrying out traditions, or just the heightened anxiety this time of year can bring...the holidays can seem like an impossible feat for people going through loss.
Grief expert and author of the book “The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief is Shared,” Robert Zucker has worked in the field for decades as well as grappled with the personal grief of losing relatives and people close to him. He said in an interview with Oxygen.com, the holidays are “almost universally” more difficult for those grieving.
Here are six tips on coping with grief this holiday season.
1. Be mindful of self-care and self-compassion
Zucker says be conscious of your body: get plenty of rest as you may be more tired than normal, drink plenty of water, and eat wholesome foods that bring you comfort.
Although notions self-care and self-compassion differ, Zucker says it could mean prayer, meditation, quiet time, or even journaling.
“Creating some kind of space that really nurtures your spirit or your soul,” Zucker said. “Whatever language works for you.”
2. Keep things manageable
Zucker says getting to the essence of what a holiday means for you and your family can sometimes help you approach traditions with more ease.
An example he points to is a man falling ill who was normally considered the host and cook for family gatherings. He says the family decided the most important part of the Thanksgiving holiday was being together and instead of cooking they ordered in.
“They had paper plates instead of fine china,” Zucker said. “They just did it in a way that was manageable and they had the best of Thanksgivings...”
Zucker says it relieved the family member of the responsibilities he couldn't carry out that year.
When people are trying to get to the essence of the holiday Zucker says they can ask themselves: “How can you change your relationship to the holiday and shape it in a way that fits your life now?”
3. Honor your loved one in the way that works best for you or your family
Family members may feel differently when it comes to confronting old traditions. Zucker recalls a couple he worked with who were struggling with the death of their child and how to deal with a Christmas tree in their home. He says the family had a tradition of the child placing a special decoration on the tree each year, but the parents felt differently about whether they could carry out the tradition while they were grieving.
“One of them saw the decoration as essential on the tree because it was honoring their child,” Zucker said. “The other parent was overwhelmed by the thought of that and it would be impossible to have the decoration on the tree...”
Zucker says the couple described their perspectives to each other.
“It might have been the dad who wanted the decoration if I recall correctly,” Zucker said. “He just described how much love he felt for this child, for their child, and that when he thinks about Christmas the love for the child would be expressed in that decoration hanging on the tree and it would carry him through the holiday.”
Zucker says the other parent described not being able to “survive” the holiday with the decoration on the tree as it would make the pain unbearable.
He recalled the couple later compromising and the parent who wanted the decoration began placing it on a tree at work. Zucker says understanding each other from a place of compassion can be key for those struggling.
He adds children who are grieving may want to continue family traditions, like where you go to dinner or if you get a tree, as it can bring them comfort. Other times, Zucker says older children may be more amenable to renegotiating traditions.
“Having a discussion, like you know, we always have a tree,” Zucker said. “What would it be like to do it differently, not have a tree, but have different colored candles that we light each night and we talk together about the things that are special to us and things that are meaningful to us this year...”
4. If you are offering to help someone grieving, Zucker says be specific
Although many of us may say something like “reach out to me if you need anything” to a grieving person, Zucker says it can be an overwhelming offer and it can create an “unsuccessful transaction.”
He says try to consider what the person may need and then offer more specific ways to help.
“Maybe she needs some help with shoveling the driveway or maybe if there are children at home and maybe she could use some babysitting time so she can sleep or he can sleep,” Zucker said.
5. If someone is dealing with a death associated with trauma, Zucker recommends a breathing technique
“It’s called 4-8 breathing and essentially it’s helpful to put your hand somewhere on your body...,” Zucker described. “I like to do my heart.”
He says to breathe in through your nose for four counts and out of your mouth slowly to the count of eight. If you feel comfortable, you can repeat the exercise.
“If you’re feeling the anxiety, or the trauma, recurring panic, whatever it might be that occurs for you, sometimes just putting the hand where your hand is when you do this breathing exercise just kind of re-informs your pysche to kind of remember that you’re okay you know that you’re going to get through this,” Zucker said.
6. Try to find beauty in your surroundings
“There always are conditions for happiness,” Zucker noted. “I could be in despair, but also try to be aware of looking at where I am right now. I’m looking at-- I'm in a sunroom, looking outside at this incredible snowy environment that surrounds me and seeing beauty there...”
Zucker adds going out into nature might remind a grieving person what the world has to offer them. However, someone dealing with loss might not be ready to introduce joy or gratitude back into their lives just yet.
“If it’s unavailable to me then hold that as my truth,” Zucker said. “You know that’s a part of self-compassion. I can't be who I am not.”
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