For people mourning the death of a loved one, holidays can bring renewed or intensified grief, casting a pall on what once might have been a favorite time of year. The sense of loss can be particularly acute on the first Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas with an empty place at the table.
Grief's intense emotional toll also has health implications, marked by elevated stress hormones, diminished immune response, insomnia and increased susceptibility to illness.
People struggling with grief need extra support to get through the weeks between Thanksgiving and the new year. However, strategies for coping with grief during the holidays vary according to people’s needs, said Dr. D. Keith Cobb, who practices internal medicine outside of Savannah, and is author of "The Grief Survival Handbook." He offered suggestions for people in the throes of grief, as well as for those who want to help them.
When the rest of the world seems focused on Black Friday sales, stringing lights or planning elegant menus, the grieving person’s world can seem unbearably lonely and isolated. Cobb recommended balancing time with family and friends with time alone.
“Most people want some time alone during the holidays,” he said. “But spending time with family not only helps the person grieving, but it helps the family grieve with you.” When relationships are healthy, family support can be very soothing, he said. “They are the people who love you.”
Some people find they cannot bear the thought—or sight—of holiday gifts, cards, meals or decorating without their loved one. If holiday trimmings serve only as stressful reminders of past holiday seasons, skipping certain traditions might be best, Cobb said.
But “this can be difficult in families where there are small children or grandchildren, because children expect the holidays to be as normal as possible,” Cobb said.
In such instances, families can share holiday responsibilities, with some hosting a gathering including gifts and meals for younger children, and other relatives attending only briefly or having a quieter meal elsewhere with fewer people. Taking a trip might be appropriate for people who feel being at home during the holidays will be too painful, he noted.
He also recommended seeking out sympathetic friends or family who understand the need to talk about the loved one who has died. Listening with compassion and without offering advice is an ideal way to show support for a person who is grieving.
Sometimes, friends or family worry about not knowing what to say to someone in mourning. They might tiptoe around the subject, saying nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing. Cobb's advice: “You can have a conversation. You don’t have to deliver a eulogy." Telling someone who is grieving that you also miss the person who died, and mentioning something you cherished about that person, shows empathy. “It’s OK if the person you are comforting tears up or cries,” he said. Crying is a normal reaction, and not something to try to avoid by not mentioning the person who died.
Some people might need medication to help with depression or insomnia when grieving, Cobb said. He recommended talking with a physician about physical and emotional symptoms to determine if medication will ease these effects of intense sorrow.
The family and friends of this year's violent crimes might find it impossible to feel happiness during the holidays, or ever. But with time—and it can take years—people are able to establish a “new normal” for the holidays and the rest of their lives, Cobb said. They never stop missing their loved ones, and the holidays will always be different. But Cobb reassures patients that a full and happy life does return.