How can I get through the holidays after a death?

CORP20160531_Holidays_after_death_blog_largeIf this is the first holiday for you after the death of a loved one, you might be grappling with whether you carry on the same traditions while grieving.

Our psychologist Dr. Kristen Carpenter helps answer the questions that she says trouble many people and shares tips including her innovative “notecard method” for receiving helpful support from friends and family.

A couple common questions Carpenter hears from those who are grieving:

Should I do what I've always done on the holiday?

Is it OK to spend time alone instead of with family?

If you’re grieving right now, give yourself some grace:


Let yourself feel the way you feel

Feelings are facts. Everyone copes with loss in their own way. Your emotional responses to loss are valid and are part of your unique healing process, says Carpenter, who specializes in counseling women at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Don't waste energy on feeling ashamed or guilty about your feelings, invest that energy in making concrete efforts to feel better and to heal.

Make the most of holiday celebrations
  • When a loved one is lost, some families find comfort in the familiar and incorporate a time of remembrance into their holiday celebrations. 
  • Others find the usual traditions too painful, especially if the loss occurred very recently. If this is the case, Carpenter offers that it can be helpful to celebrate the holiday in an entirely different way and consider resuming traditions when you’re ready. You might find it helpful to change the location of a celebration, consider taking a trip or visiting a family member in a different city, for example. 
  • Some people prefer to be alone in their grief, and that’s okay too. Explain your need to be by yourself to family and friends.
“The first holiday is often the hardest, especially if the loss is unexpected or sudden,” Carpenter says. 
Incorporate a time of remembrance into your celebration

How you celebrate the life of someone who died is unique to you, depending on what the person meant to you and how you feel comfortable commemorating your relationship, Carpenter says. A few ideas:

  1. Give a toast
  2. Have those gathered share a story or memory of the person
  3. Light a candle
  4. Plant a flower/tree
  5. Visit the person’s grave
  6. Light and launch paper lanterns or balloons (especially nice if children are involved in the remembrance)
  7. Say special prayers
  8. Keep photos close, for instance, wear a photo of the person in a locket or keep a picture with you during a special event you wish the person could have attended, such as a religious ceremony or wedding.

Your friends and family want to be helpful and supportive.


Carpenter’s reminder:

Seek support from others and don’t be afraid to accept help.

Her ideas on how to make sure your friends help in the most meaningful ways:

1. Lead the way in letting people know what you need
  • Be clear about whether you prefer to grieve privately, with the support of close friends or with a wide circle of people accessible through social networks.
  • Tip for friends: Don’t take to social media to offer support, in particular if the person who has experienced loss isn’t communicating publicly online. This could lead to you sharing something personal that the person prefers not to share.
2. Ask a friend to set up a meal train
  • People love to bring food, but nobody needs three lasagnas on the same day! Online tools make meals easy to coordinate.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people for food you can freeze. This could be especially helpful for a person with children who is handling the death of a spouse while parenting.

3. Write down what you need (aka the “notecard method”)

 How it works:

  • Sit down and make a list of what you need, including needs for tangible support and emotional support. 
  • Get a stack of notecards and write down one item on each card. 
  • When people ask how they can help, hand them a note card or have them choose something they feel they can do.
This will save you from trying to think of something in the moment, will allow someone who wants to be supportive to help you and will make your life easier by checking something off your list. It could be “mowing the grass,” “grocery shopping,” “church volunteering responsibility” or a list of things for which you would like prayer.

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