Kevlar for the Mind: Dealing with loss during the holidays

Q. Around this time last year, I lost my husband of 40 years. His death would have been difficult at any point during the year, but losing him around the holidays made it more challenging for me and my family.

The whole family will be getting together soon for Christmas, and I’m anxious about how things will go. I’m not sure if we should talk about his death or just focus on the family being together. I want Christmas to be a happy time and not a time of sadness and grief.

A. The death of a loved one is arguably the most difficult experience a person can face. The grief associated with losing a spouse, parent, sibling or child can be staggering.

And when the loss happens around a birthday, anniversary or holiday, the despair is compounded.

The ways in which people deal with grief around the holidays vary. Some find it easier to avoid conversations about the deceased. Others find it easier to make the person the focus of conversation during family gatherings. In situations like this, one size does not fit all.

I’ve worked with many grieving people over the years. In my experience, it seems that most try and strike a balance between avoidance and overload. In other words, families talk about and remember the loved one without making the person the main focus of the family’s time together.

One example of striking this balance is to set aside a specific time to remember and celebrate the life of the loved one. This may include a special meal time where the conversation is focused exclusively on the person.

Another option is to remember the person during a particular event or activity. The holiday season is filled with family traditions. Decorating the tree, attending worship services or watching sports together are great opportunities to remember past holidays when the loved one was around.

A more formalized approach is to create a new family tradition in which the family gathers and shares their memories of the person. Each family member has an opportunity to tell a favorite story, or even talk to the deceased as if he or she were present.

I’ve seen friends who served with the deceased invited to the gatherings. Veterans bring a unique set of memories and stories that enrich the family experience.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with grief around the holidays. The important thing is to remember the good times you shared with your loved one and enjoy the present with your family and friends.

Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. He is the co-author of “The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook.” This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.

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