The First Holiday Without Them -- Coping With Loss

The first holiday after a death can be a trying time, but help is here.

December 17, 2010, 4:17 PM

Dec. 24, 2010— -- There will be no Christmas tree this year for Christine Hebert, and no decorations, as it just doesn't feel right to celebrate the holidays the way she used to since her husband, Leon, died last March of lung cancer.

"Christmas was his favorite time of year and always mine too, but this year I'd prefer it to be more about celebrating his memory than about celebrating the season. Things were more tolerable up until the holidays.Thanksgiving was tough, and I'm sure Christmas will be even worse," Hebert says.

Come Christmas morning, Hebert plans on going to the cemetery to spend time with her husband.

"I couldn't imagine spending Christmas any other way this year. Doing normal Christmas things just wouldn't feel natural. I find comfort in going there. I sit and talk to him and remember a lot of things that you take for granted every day. It's going to be a day that I can stop trying to cope and move on. I'm just going to have the whole day to concentrate on him. Hopefully, next year will be different," she says. "It's been nine months since he passed, but it still feels like yesterday."

For those still mourning the loss of a spouse, child, parent or other loved one, that first holiday season can be an emotionally trying time. Between the memories that are stirred up by the festivities and the expectations to be jolly and full of holiday spirit, the season can mean slipping back into grief and depression for those still coping with loss.

While grief counselors and therapists agree that there's no right or wrong way to celebrate that first holiday after the death of a loved one, there are ways to ease the pain of the holiday, and things that friends and family can do to help those in mourning.

Family Support vs. Time Alone

For Hebert, time with family has been essential and was the predominant factor in her getting through the Thanksgiving holiday, for which her husband had traditionally done all the cooking. She says her family's support has been a great "blessing" for her, but she also feels that she needs to spend Christmas Day mostly alone so that she can remember and mourn and celebrate her husband in peace. She will spend the days leading up to the holiday and the days after at her sister's with extended family, but not the day itself.

Often, there is an assumption that the best remedy for getting through the holidays while grieving is distraction and keeping busy and doing all the traditional holiday activities. While this can be helpful for some, it is not the only way to help yourself through this time, experts say.

Reaching Out and Taking Time for Self

"If a person says to their family, 'I just need to be by myself,' often some family members will say that that's bad and they can't be left alone. But if [you] feel in your gut and your heart that that's what you need for your coping, then you follow your gut. Everybody needs space differently, and I wouldn't say that it's necessarily a sign of someone not coping to want to be alone," says Amy Sales, a social worker and author of "Walking on Eggshells," a guide for caregivers of those with life-limiting illnesses.

It's different for everyone. But those who choose to be alone on the holiday should be aware of getting caught up in negative thoughts, says George Everly, who works in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"When you feel yourself start being sucked into the abyss, that's when you need to reach out to your support systems. Negative thoughts like 'I'll never have it as good again' or 'I'm totally alone' are early warning signs that being alone might not be good for you right now, so pick up the phone, get out of the house, do something so you don't get caught up in it," he says.

For many, social support and distraction will be the best cure for the season, Everly says, so it really depends on what makes you feel better. While people often isolate themselves from holiday parties out of fear of being a "downer" or of crying and getting upset in front of others, Everly says it's important to realize that those who love you understand that you're not going to be "your old chipper self" right now and want you there anyway.

Dr. Philip Muskin, chief of consultation-liaison psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, agrees, adding that sometimes it takes dragging yourself to the holiday parties to "find out" that people love you and care about you and the one you lost and want to be there for you.

Banishing Guilt, Permission for Joy, and Taking Stock

One of the hardest parts of getting through the holidays for those in grief is the belief they have to be cheerful just because it's the holidays. Those who are grieving often feel bad for not feeling good at Christmas, or if they do manage to have a good time, they feel guilty for laughing or feeling joy when they think they should still be in mourning. It's a bit of a vicious cycle.

The same kind of guilt can crop up surrounding the continuing of holiday traditions: Should they put up the decorations as usual? How can they when their loved one is not there? Herbert didn't end up decorating, but then said she felt guilty for not decorating in her husband's honor. It feels wrong to celebrate without the loved one, but wrong not to celebrate, she says.

The most useful tool against these feelings of guilt and confusion is to ask oneself what the deceased would have wanted, grief experts say.

"In many ways we often do the reverse: 'He's gone, and I can't do this', but that's exactly what your loved one wouldn't have wanted for you. You are not honoring the loss by depriving yourself of your traditions or of the celebrations that the holidays entail," says Muskin. "I try to remind my patients to ask themselves, 'What would he/she want for me right now?'"

It's important to remember that you're allowed to be happy, you're allowed to be sad, you're allowed to whatever you need, Sales says. "It's OK to be selfish with your own needs at this time, and it's important to be gentle with yourself," she says. "It's OK to turn down certain holiday invitations to give yourself space, but it's also OK to let your family know that you need extra support right now."

And perhaps one of the most important things to remember around the holidays, experts say, is to celebrate the life of those who are gone instead of mourning their death.

"It's an issue of perspective," says Everly. "The key is not focusing on the loss. They will always be with you, they are with you whenever you want them with you, and to remember them fondly. Focus on the warmth of their memory rather than the cold of their absence."

For Hebert, she plans on spending this Christmas recalling those warm memories and cherishing her beloved husband's life.

"Sometimes I sit and remember a lot of little things about him that you take for granted every day. You don't realize how many good memories you have until you lose them. It's a good time of year for people to remember that. If they still have their loved ones here, try to cherish what you have."

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