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Surviving grief during the holidays

Marie Vagedes, L.C.S.W.

With the holiday season upon us, some already may be feeling the stress that is abundant this time of year. Although the holidays can be a time of joy, they also can be a time of sorrow, remembering those who are no longer able to join us. Loss can create stress in our lives. Knowing there is a process we all go through in response to a loss can be helpful. We call this natural healing process grief. 

There are many different variations when describing the grief process. One approach many who are grieving have found helpful is to learn the actual “tasks” of the process. These tasks are fluid and recurring, meaning a person does not progress through them in a stair-step fashion.

The first task is to accept the reality of the situation. Accepting the fact that the loss has actually occurred and cannot be changed is the foundation for healing. If a person has not accepted the loss, they are not able to work through the grief associated with the loss. Although this may seem a simple task, the individual grieving the loss of a loved one may find this task the most difficult of them all to complete.

The next task of grief is feeling the pain of the loss. Naturally, none of us want to experience emotional pain; however, feeling the pain and actively grieving is necessary to heal. Many people use the analogy of a bodily injury that has dirt and gravel embedded in it. For the wound to heal properly, it is imperative to remove the dirt and gravel. This cleansing process can be painful for the person injured, but it is necessary. If the wound is not cleaned, infection likely will set in and the wound will not heal. We can associate this same process with grieving. It may be painful to grieve, but it is a cleansing process that leads to healing. 

Another important task of grief is commemorating the memory of the loved one. Honoring the memory of the person who has died can take many forms. Some choose this to be a public ceremony or memorial, while others need something more private, and many choose to do both. For instance, holding a memorial or funeral service and then doing something else meaningful like planting a tree or flowers.

The final task of the grief process is internalizing the relationship. This means that though the person is no longer a part of the physical world, we are still a mother, a daughter, a father, a son, a wife, a husband, and so on in relation to that person. Our relationship with our loved one is not erased when death comes. This final task requires those grieving to go on with their life. This does not mean forgetting the person who has passed, but it does mean saying goodbye. 

While you are experiencing grief, it is vital to remember to care for yourself and those who also are grieving. Here are a few simple reminders: Eat regularly and choose healthy foods such as fresh vegetables and fruit and make sure to eat enough protein like meat, beans or cheese. Grief takes a lot of physical and emotional energy, so more sleep may be required. Exercise regularly, since exercise helps alleviate stress. Talk to a supportive friend or family member about how you are feeling, your memories, etc. Be gentle with yourself and others. Remember, grief does not happen all at once. And finally, cry when you need to and laugh when you can.

If there is a concern you or a loved is overwhelmed with grief, please seek professional counseling, support group or your physician.

Marie Vagedes, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist with Flagstaff Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Services. For more information, call Behavioral Health Services at 213-6400.