Seniors and Grief: Coping With Loss During The Holidays

Many seniors feel they have to pretend all is well during the holidays for the sake of others. But it’s important to set aside time to grieve, ask for help if you need it, and forego traditions that are just too hard since your loved one passed.

PUBLISHED: Feb 25, 2014

If you or someone you know is facing the first holiday season without a loved one such as a spouse or lifelong friend, it may be a challenge to handle reminders of the holidays, including family traditions, shopping, events or decorating. Some may feel depressed and wish the holidays would pass by as quickly as possible. The important thing to realize is that no matter how long you’ve been grieving for a loved one–a short time or many years–for most people, the holidays typically bring grief back to the surface. And with grief questions surface:

  • Should I act like everything is okay so the rest of the family can enjoy the holidays?
  • Is it all right for me to skip traditions if they seem too hard to handle?
  • Should I make major changes to my typical holiday rituals?

There are no easy, clear-cut answers to any of these questions – it depends on the factors surrounding each situation. What is a coping mechanism for one person will be ineffective for another.

Grief can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get paralyzed and stuck in it. But reaching out and learning how to find the strength and support can help a person take charge of the grief, and that will go a long way toward making the holidays after the loss of a loved one a bit more bearable. Here are a few ways to begin:

Accept that your pain will be triggered

From music to decorations, to shoppers crowding stores to holiday advertisements, the holidays are all around us. Some people find that simply accepting the fact that the holiday season will be hard and painful provides more strength to cope. If someone close died recently, it’s okay to lower expectations of the holiday season. One cannot expect to feel the way he or she once did, and should not feel guilty because of it.

Prepare and plan ahead

Thinking ahead and anticipating activities allow people the opportunity to structure time in such a way that mitigates the temptation to overdo things, or get caught up in others’ expectations and regret it later. If it’s too painful to participate in certain holiday activities, make that known ahead of time. Consider doing something altogether different when it comes to dinners, church services or other activities. Planning a daily calendar a week in advance might help a person feel less lost without a loved one, and will help prevent getting ‘stuck’ in grief. Lighten the load if plans become too much.

Ask for support and help

Getting enough support during the holidays means reaching out to others who may be experiencing or have experienced the same thing, as well as asking for assistance with holiday preparations. Research support groups in your area. Most people find grief lessens when they realize others feel the exact same way. For others counseling sessions work well. Even online support groups are places you can find ideas on how to cope. Though it is important to set aside time to grieve, don’t become isolated, especially during the holidays.

What about holiday traditions?

Knowing what to do about family traditions is one of the hardest things people face after the death of a loved one. Don’t be afraid to tell family members that certain traditions will be too hard. Plan to do only what is special and meaningful to you. Most people experiencing grief during the holidays do find creating some new tradition to honor a loved one helps.

Ask visitors and other family members to write a journal about the memories of a loved one. Establish a special place in your home that conjures happy memories, such as hanging a stocking for a departed loved one, and asking others to fill it with notes of fond memories and good wishes.

Try not to compare a holiday experience with others. It’s easy to stand back and think everyone is feeling happy. The holidays are stressful for everyone and are never as magical as we sometimes perceive. The goal is to do whatever feels best. Experts also say it’s normal for it to take several years to identify those traditions to keep and those that are no longer a part of your life, so focus on just this holiday season for now.

Here are some new traditions you can start in memory of your loved one:

  • Donate to a cause he or she was passionate about.
  • Find a local organization that needs help and donate time, food or toys.
  • Plant a tree in memory of your loved one.

What if I feel numb or even apathetic during the holiday?

Experts on grief typically stress that everyone grieves in his/her own way, and it’s okay to accept and respect whatever feelings an individual may have. Many people feel numb and even disoriented when they are grieving, but it’s all right and not unusual. Rely on a support system of close and important people.

Here are some additional ways to help ease grief during the holiday season:

  • Plan healthy meals, time for exercise and drink plenty of water.
  • Do not stifle emotions. Set aside time to experience sadness and anger. Journaling thoughts and feelings can help ease grief. Be truthful about your feelings when asked.
  • Be informed before events. Ask who will be attending and what activities are planned.

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