By Lisa DeSieno, Bereavement Services director in Eau Claire, Wisconsin
The holiday season can be especially challenging if you are dealing with the death of someone close to you. Whether it was a recent loss or one that occurred some time ago, feelings of grief can be heightened and may seem overwhelming during the holiday season. This is a time known for traditions and togetherness with family and friends. Understanding how grief affects you, having conversations about plans with those close to you, and taking time to find ways to remember your loved one can help restore a sense of balance through this time. These actions also can help you to navigate through the rough spots and find warmth in special, unexpected places.
"Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love." — C.S. Lewis
Grief and bereavement are universal, understandable, human responses to loss, but how each person processes the various symptoms and reactions can vary greatly. Because each person is different, how and when those feelings surface will also vary.
There really is no predictable timetable or pattern. While you may feel it on an emotional level, or in your normal behaviors and relationships, grief also has its physical effects, which are important to note. You might recognize that you tire more easily, have trouble eating or sleeping, or seem more susceptible to headaches and other illnesses. You might even notice that you have trouble concentrating and a low tolerance level. These types of symptoms can be explained because the part of the brain responsible for emotion and stress is activated during the grieving process, so normal brain functioning is interrupted. Grief can change brain chemicals and hormonal functioning, and your immune system can be compromised.
All of these symptoms are a sign to pay close attention to your health and take good care of yourself when you're grieving. It is important to take it easy and be gentle with yourself. Try to eat healthy foods and get enough rest. You are not imagining these reactions. They are real. If you are experiencing these kinds of things, it is also a good idea to see your health care provider to ensure that all is well and have added guidance during this difficult time.
Some of what you're experiencing may include responses that don't feel socially acceptable. You might find that you can't cry. The tears just won't come. Or you might feel so down or exhausted that you have trouble just getting out of bed or off the sofa. You might realize that the coping responses you've developed might not be the healthiest.
The important thing to remember is that you are unique individual. Honor your own process and acknowledge that for whatever reason this is how you respond and are attempting to cope. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It may be beneficial to seek grief counseling or join a grief support group. Knowing that you are not alone can make a world of difference. Connecting with those who understand or are going through a similar situation can provide new perspectives, affirm that what you are going through is normal, and offer much-needed support.
Through the lens of these many types of reactions that are painful and difficult, you may not necessarily think of your grief as a privilege. You are grieving because you've loved, have been loved, and continue to love. An important part of your healing during this holiday season may be to embrace the love and memories that you've shared with your loved one. Sharing stories among family and friends, making favorite foods, looking at photographs of happy memories or other activities may help you find that connection. Pay attention to whether this warms you or becomes too hot to touch. Let your feelings be your guide. Finding the path to navigate through all of the activities of the season may provide a needed sense of empowerment.
Wishing you peace through the holiday season.