The holidays are a time for family and traditions, and it’s common to experience grief associated with the memories of a lost one.
According to Dr. Phil Epstein, a psychologist at Partners for Behavioral Health & Wellness in Beachwood; Dr. Jeff Turell, founder and medical director at Strive Mental Health in Shaker Heights; and Dave Zavasky, program manager of Dual Diagnosis, Transitional Youth Services & the Jail Treatment program at Crossroads Health in Mentor, everyone experiences and deals with grief in different ways.
“Coping skills are the same as we would use in any kind of grief work,” Epstein said. “You can certainly talk about the person no longer here or you can reminisce about memories with that person and you can somehow try to incorporate memories and traditions of that person into the next generation. When we’re looking forward, it helps us when we look backward. Also, it’s important to stay active and be with people who love and care about us.”
Zavasky said, “The first thing we have to be is honest with ourselves, especially if this is the first time we’re going through the holiday season without the loved one. It is accepting that it will be different and there is nothing you can do about that. The more we try and fight that, the harder it will be to cope with that grief. It is one of those often unspoken things, and it is hard to grasp for some people.”
Turell explained grief moves in stages and coping skills will differ depending on the stage the person is in. These stages are denial, anger, negotiation, depression and acceptance, he said, adding, for example, if someone is in denial, he or she may still have a place setting for their loved one at the table.
“If they are in the anger stage of grief, they may refuse to invite a person who they didn’t support them during their time of loss or pain,” Turell said. “If they are in the negotiation stage, they may feel guilty, like if only they had done more for that person before they passed. But it is important to make a distinction between depression related to mourning a loss and depression related to a major depressive disorder, and that thoughts of suicide should not accompany mourning.”
Individuals experiencing grief should work to use healthy coping mechanisms instead of falling into unhealthy rhythms, the professionals said.
“You have to think about the person that you lost would not want you to be dull, miserable and unhappy because of the loss,” Turell noted. “That would probably make that person sad that you haven’t been able to continue living in a happy and enjoyable manner. That is what can pull someone out of their depression and lead to acceptance. It doesn’t mean they stop missing the person but you can still find enjoyment in life.”
Zavasky said, “Know you will experience a wide range of feelings. You need to allow yourself to experience those things. We will do things to suppress grief and avoid it, and that may help in the short term but that could also prolong the healing processing causing further hurt.”
Epstein said individuals struggling with grief following the holidays should look to cope in meaningful, tactile ways. He suggested creating a memory box, where individuals can decorate the box as they wish and put mementos of their lost loved one in there.
“It will always be there to look inside when they want or need to,” he said. “It keeps the memories alive and can start conversations with friends and family.”
Speaking of friends and family, the professionals said confiding in others is a big part of dealing with painful memories. Loved ones hold an important role during the healing process, they added.
“Chances are your loved ones want to share memories of the person as well,” Epstein said. “We’re social and empathetic beings, so we want to be there for people we love to help and support them. That reciprocity is important.”
Turell said, “The supportive role is important because when people lose someone, they need more people in their lives to make up for the loss. So, a listening ear or a supportive role during that time will give them something of what they are missing.”
But the most important thing to know when it comes to grief is that it comes in waves, Zavasky said. Individuals may experience grief one day and be completely fine the next. Dealing with these bursts of emotion starts with listening to yourself, Zavasky explained.
“Remind yourself that these emotions are temporary because, at that moment, it feels like forever,” he said. “I have to emphasize embracing the emotion and allowing yourself to feel it instead of suppressing it. Emotions come and go and we’re going to feel sadness again about something. But being able to accept that this is the reality, but that we will also feel happiness and joy between those periods, is key.”