Grief and the Holidays: The Empty Chair
Holidays — whether religious or secular — are especially painful for those who have lost a loved one. Holidays emphasize the absence of the loved one, they require energy while grief saps energy, the gaiety of public places increases a person’s sense of isolation and alienation, and the very nature of the holidays (for instance, “giving thanks” at Thanksgiving) seems impossible for a grieving person to embrace.
There is the empty chair, the missing voice, the missing laugh, and the presents that aren’t given or received. For these reasons and more, the holidays — especially the first year — are often difficult times for those who have recently lost a loved one.
I would like to offer you ten suggestions that might help you cope with the approaching holidays this year:
➀ Don’t try to avoid the holidays: We can mentally try to ignore the holidays by pretending that they don’t exist but it takes tremendous energy to deny all of the input we see around us. Because the holidays are essentially everywhere, this is a recipe for disaster and a poor coping plan.
➁ Plan ahead: Although you may experience some emotional pain during the process, planning ahead is a very good idea. Studies show that those who experience the most difficulty are those who have given little thought to the challenges they will encounter.
➂ Leave the word “ought” out of the holidays: Consider scheduling a family meeting in which everyone can express feeling and expectations. Make joint decisions. Be flexible with traditions. Keep the traditions and rituals you want and eliminate the ones you don’t. Reduce the pressure by knowing that whatever you decide to do this year, you won’t have to do next year.
➃ Let your family and friends know what you can handle: Share your feelings and your needs with your friends and families. Tell them what things will bring you comfort this year. Learn to be comfortable saying, “Sorry, not this year.”
➄ Take care of yourself physically: Get plenty of rest — take naps if you like. Try to incorporate an exercise program into your day. Don’t overdo on the eggnog and sweets — you’ll simply feel worse later.
➅ Allow tears and allow laughter: Accept ahead of time that there will be times when you are going to feel sad — carry extra tissues. Someone very wise once called tears the “gift of healing.” But also give yourself permission to feel good, to laugh, and even to have fun. Don’t feel guilty if your find yourself enjoying an activity.
➆ Reach out spiritually: Keep in mind that painful losses can shake up religious beliefs. The questioning of faith is a normal expression of loss and consistent with later spiritual growth. Tell God about your anger and your questions — I’m sure God can handle it. Many people find consolation in meaningful spiritual rituals, religious services, and in the reading of Holy Scriptures — especially the Psalms.
➇ Be kind to yourself: Decide what you really want to do and what can be avoided. Lower demands and expectations on yourself. However, if you find yourself declining all invitations, push yourself a bit to select some. Consider gift certificates if shopping is too much. Feel free to shorten or even omit your greeting cards this year.
➈ Be kind to others: Consider doing something special or unexpected for someone who is in need.
➉ Remember the true meaning of the holidays: Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas all celebrate hope, faith, and love and none of these is diminished with death.
The opening quote in this paper was not a fictional character or even one of my patients. It was my mother about thirty years ago. My father had died in a tragic car accident and I was the oldest of the four children. Yes, Christmas was not easy that year, but we survived and we eventually flourished again. AseraCare Hospice offers bereavement and help to those who are hurting — please don’t hesitate to give us a call.
-James A. Avery, MD, CMD, FAAHPM, FCCP, FACP
Dr. Avery is Visiting Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. Dr. Avery was the recipient of the Lillian B. Wald Award for his hospice and palliative care work in New York City and the Roger C. Bone Award for National Leadership in End-of-Life Care.
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