Grieving is a necessary healing process, but like any recovery period, painful obstacles can crop up. Holidays - as well as any important anniversary - are especially difficult for grieving people.
Because every experience of grief is different, just as every person and every death is different, there are no hard and fast rules for dealing with holidays during a period of grief. But there are some guidelines that can help.
Counselors say it's a good idea to prepare emotionally by recognizing that the holiday season will trigger more intense feelings of sadness or depression or loss. It is particularly important for friends and family members to be sensitive to the hardships holidays can bring, and to show support.
How? The most important way is simply by letting grieving people know you are willing to listen if they need to talk, and that you are willing to help them mark the occasion in whatever way they think is best for them.
Above all, don't neglect small opportunities to let them know you recognize the difficulty the holidays bring. Dr. Elizabeth Haase, who counsels grieving people at the St. Francis Center in Washington, D.C., says that often friends don't know what to say, so they simply don't mention the death. And since the grieving person often doesn't want to "spoil" the celebration, he may not say anything either.
But the silence is painful. It tends to make the person think that nobody remembers his pain or cares about his grief, and that causes anger to fester inside.
Some ways of getting through the holidays may not help at all. For instance, many people make a conscious effort to change their routine during the first year after a death. That can be helpful, but only if it is done for the right reasons.
"Don't use change as a substitute for coming to terms with a loss," cautions Dr. Haase. "It doesn't necessarily help."
If leaving home for Christmas is simply a way of avoiding the need to come to terms with a death, the relief will only be temporary. In many cases, a drastic change in routine the first year may mean that painful memories will come pouring back even stronger the next year. It's not surprising that people often report that the second year after a death was harder than the first.
You can't run away from grief, but you can plan to build in support for yourself as the holidays approach.
Think about how many of your old rituals you want to continue, and how much you want to change. Discuss it with your family and friends and ask their help.
Some people may decide that, even with supportive friends around, they want the company of other people who are grieving or anticipating death. Dr. Kathleen McCarty, a psychiatrist in Tampa, Fla. who works with terminally ill patients and their families, cites some cases in which grieving families have found fulfilling ways to mark the holidays by reaching out to other people.
She recalls that a family who lost a young daughter to cancer decided to provide Christmas for a girl who would otherwise not have had much to celebrate.
Other families she knows find comfort in returning to the hospital where their loved one spent so much time. There, they can reach out to people still coping with a terminally ill relative.
Even if you continue much of your familiar routine, it's important to think through how it will change. For instance, a woman whose husband always cut the Christmas tree decided she would take up the task herself, but with the help of her son.
Family routines and rituals don't have to end because a family member has died. They will inevitably change, but death and renewal are part of life.