WATCH: Grieving During the Holidays

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heading: missing loved ones at Christmas

Christmas can be a difficult time for those of us who are missing loved ones.

To help you prepare for feelings of grief that may surface at this time of year, we sat down with Dr. Amber Cohen, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist, to discuss grieving during the holidays.

Dr. Cohen has practical advice for things we can do to manage our grief during the holiday season.

Q: Why Are the Holidays Such a Difficult Time For People Missing Loved Ones and Grieving?

“In your experience, why are the holidays such an especially difficult time for people who are missing loved ones and grieving?” asks interview host Courtney Murdock.

“The holidays are so difficult because they are such a family and loved ones time,” says Dr. Cohen.

“I think that what happens is that we have such strong traditions and strong memories around these times.

“Visceral memories that use all of our senses like the taste of food, smells of food or the fire, sounds of music, prayers, touch and feeling the hugs and love from people and so on.

“Such visceral and strong memories can trigger memories of our loved ones and grief just comes up from that.

“I think also that a second piece to it is that sometimes people’s family dynamics and support networks may have changed from the loss and that can be especially difficult during these times,” states Dr. Cohen.

Q: Why Does Grief Resurface During the Holidays?

“You kind of touched on my next question which is: ‘Why does grief tend to “resurface” so strongly during the holidays, even if it has been months or even years since someone has suffered the loss?’” asks Murdock.

“I think [what I said previously applies] for sure,” agrees Dr. Cohen. “But, also there is no time-cap on grief. I think people sometimes feel a pressure to get over it, but that’s simply not true.

Everybody’s struggle with grief is different. The rate they move forward, how they move forward, it can just really be a unique experience and anytime we have a holiday or a birthday or the anniversary of someone’s death, it can just trigger those memories and grief feelings again.

“I also think that the first year can be particularly difficult when people don’t know what the holiday is going to look like and how those traditions have changed, and this uncertainty can just be really hard to sit with,” explains Dr. Cohen.

“Right, when the absence of that person is especially felt,” replies Murdock.

“Exactly!” affirms Dr. Cohen.

Q: How Can You Emotionally Prepare for the Holidays When You are Missing Loved Ones?

“How can someone who is missing a loved one emotionally prepare himself or herself for an upcoming holiday?” asks Murdock.

“So I think that there’s a lot of stuff that we can do to emotionally prepare,” replies Dr. Cohen.

“One of the best ways is to bring awareness to the fact that you might have a difficult time.

“So really start to notice some of your thoughts and feelings in order to be able to kind of reach into your tool-belt and use some skills that might help you feel a little bit better.

“Whether it’s reaching out to loved ones, memorializing your loved ones in some way, or visiting their grave site. Just kind of being aware of those feelings and that they are going to come up can let you know that you’ve got to use those skills to feel a bit better.

“Also, I think that some people kind of get guilty feelings and think that the depth of their pain might equate to the amount that they loved that person.

“That’s simply not true and I think that a way to combat this is to think about what your loved one would want for you during the holiday season, (and in general). And it is probably to hold positive and loving memories in your mind about them and not get stuck in the pain.

“I also think it’s really important that if you are a worrier in general, or you recognize that you are worrying about what the holidays are going to look like, to notice these ruminating thoughts and try and distract your mind away from them.

“This can be by using any of your coping techniques or skills. Really, the best way is just to do something that is cognitively complex.

“Whether it’s through Sudoku, or crosswords, or knitting, or whatever you like, notice yourself kind of spinning in those unhelpful thoughts and try to move your mind away from them,” explains Dr. Cohen.

“Right, excellent advice,” says Murdock.

Q: How You Deal with Social Expectations While Grieving During the Holidays?

“The holidays are often filled with social gatherings, which can be a lot for someone who is grieving,” says Murdock

“Could you recommend any coping skills or techniques for people who are finding it difficult to balance the social aspect of the holidays and the need to work through their grief?”

“Definitely, I think that the most important thing is to be okay with saying no to things and to set boundaries,” emphasizes Dr. Cohen.

“Right,” agrees Murdock.

“I think that the best way to kind of look at it is you want to hit somewhere in the middle of the continuum—not totally isolating yourself, but also not feeling like you have to do every single event,” explains Dr. Cohen.

“Pick the events or the people you feel most supported by or most comfortable with and sort of prioritize those events.

“Also, think of ways that can kind of make you feel most reassured and safe. For example, bringing your own car so you can leave the event when you want to, or RSVP that you are only going to come for a certain amount of time.

“So just making it the most comfortable situation possible for yourself,” says Dr. Cohen.

Q: Any Final Thoughts for Coping With Holiday Grief When Missing Our Loved Ones?

“And do you have any final thoughts for our viewers who might be missing loved ones during the holidays?” asks Murdock.

“Two final thoughts come to mind. One is, take care of yourself,” emphasizes Dr. Cohen.

“The holidays are a hard time. Our sleep schedules are off, our eating patterns are off, our exercise regimen is off, and those are all things that can affect us when we are already feeling down. So I would try to stay on top of those things as much as possible.

“And the second thing is to remember to reach out for support. Often when we lose someone, our loved ones say, ‘let me know if you need anything, or how I can help,’ but they might not feel comfortable bringing up the loss themselves.

“But, I am certain that most people want to help, so if you were to reach out and say, ‘I kind of need you to be here for me,’ or, ‘this is what you can do for me,’ that’s a good way to get a little bit of support and love when you’re struggling,” advises Dr. Cohen.

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