NEW YORK CITY — The stuffing from that rare holiday hybrid Thanksgivukkah still hovers at our waistlines and the volume on the Christmas music is rising by the day — yes, holiday season is upon us.
For many, this brings joy, excitement and connection with friends and family. However, for others this is a time of year that reminds us of recent and past losses.
Last year, I wrote about common holiday stressors and ways to combat them. This year, I'll take a look at how loss affects us during the holidays and how to cope with the feelings that can often seem out-of-step with the merriment of others.
Defining Loss and Grief
There was a time when the only official "loss" considered sufficient to spark psychological damage was human death — and only close friends or relatives, such as a parent, child or spouse, were considered valid candidates for that degree of grief.
However, through the years it has come to be accepted that when we speak of psychological loss, it can mean many things beyond the death of a loved one. It can include, but not be limited to, marital divorce, loss of a job, moving, the death of a pet, miscarriage and retirement.
This broader definition allows us to take into consideration the subjective experience of the individual, and therefore honor their true feelings without judgment of whether the loss was “big” or “important” enough.
This is critical to remember because, while others may be mourning the death of loved ones, you may be feeling the effects of a recent or past loss, and not giving yourself the permission to do so.
Grief is a natural response to any important loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief will be. Some natural emotions that you may experience include intense sadness, anger, hopelessness and self-pity.
Why do I Feel This Loss During the Holiday Season?
Sometimes feelings of loss are magnified during the holiday season, even if the loss itself did not take place at then.
For example, if you got divorced recently, this may be the first holiday you’ll be spending without your spouse. If you lost your father two years ago, you may find you are missing him more this year than you did last year. Perhaps you lost your job over the summer, and you have started to feel a lack of identity as you are surrounded by other people's holiday office parties and New Year resolutions.
From holiday parties to family gatherings to receiving holiday cards, the emotional triggers can start to feel like land mines.
There’s so much emphasis on family and togetherness during the holidays that it's easy to see why it can trigger potentially painful thoughts and emotions. You don’t have to have strong family memories of holiday dinners past for the sense of loss and remembrance to cast a shadow over your current experience.
Once we get triggered, there are many ways in which we can react and cope.
Acknowledge the Feelings
The primary step in coping with loss around the holidays, or any time, is acknowledging that a loss is affecting you in the first place.
Be honest with yourself and consciously try to shift the thoughts from “I shouldn’t feel so bad,” to “It’s OK that I’m feeling this loss.” Sometimes this simple shift in thinking can lessen the emotional pain, because we are allowing it to come out rather than trying to suppress or avoid it.
Resist the Urge to “Put on a Happy Face”
Be honest about your feelings. Many people feel they have to act happy in accordance with pressure they may feel from holiday themed advertisements, decorations or TV specials. Others feel they don’t want to ruin their family’s holidays by being sad, or focusing on the negative like a “Debbie Downer.”
The truth is, unless we have extensive training at the Actor's Studio, most of us are not very good at putting on a happy face. Our friends and family can generally see right through this. All “putting on a happy face” does is disconnect ourselves from our emotional lives, and actually makes the hurt last longer.
Express Your Feelings to Someone You Trust
When I discuss loss and grief with my clients, many of them tell me that they do not discuss their pain with anyone because they do not want to be a “burden” to their friends and family.
I urge you to seek out those who you trust as a resource. It helps to communicate your feelings to someone you love because you give them the opportunity to support and validate your experience. Just remember to only share your feelings with people who make you feel safe. It's best to avoid people you have a conflicted relationship with, to prevent additional pain.
Often times I encourage my clients to acknowledge their feelings at the beginning of their day, so that the feelings do not hang heavy on them throughout the rest of the day. This can also mean making a note of how you feel at the onset of a party, dinner or religious service, so that you can acknowledge it and experience the present.
“In the morning, I need 20 minutes to cry, to wake up and make that shift, you know, and to just say, ‘This really sucks’...to really allow yourself the feeling of loss, even two years later ... [it] still needs to be acknowledged,” he said.
Giving Yourself Permission to Take the Time You Need
Remember, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between the duration of time since the loss and the intensity of your feelings.
Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold. There is no “normal” timetable for grieving.
While the grieving process extends to many different kinds of loss, it's important to remember that there is no timetable for how long a loss “should” be felt. Remember to be honest with yourself, and feel whatever emotions surface, so as not to bury them and make it worse.
With that said, sometimes grief and loss can get to a place where it is greatly affecting our functioning, such as not being able to get out of bed, leave the house, shop for necessities, go to work or care for a child.
At that point it's time to seek the help of a professional therapist to help you get through this process and regain your ability to function.
When is it OK to Feel Good Again?
Today. Right now. There is no reason not to feel joy, if that's what you are feeling in the moment.
Our emotional lives are very complex, many times experiencing multiple feelings at once. Just as it's important to acknowledge the pain, it's equally important to honor the times in which you feel joy, happiness or gratitude. This is OK, and try to remind yourself that it's part of the human experience.
While you may be experiencing loss, you also do not have to feel guilty about enjoying some of the joyful moments of the season.