Experts offer advice on coping with grief during the holidays

Bereavement counselor Susan Desmarais offers tips on how to get through the holidays. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

It may be the most wonderful time, the happiest season, but for the many people who are grieving, the joyful holidays just make them sadder. Trying to resume a normal life after a loved one has died is hard enough. Add to it the jingling bells, jolly ads, sentimental songs, images of happy families, and the barrage of “Happy Holidays!” and it can be much worse.

For someone who is likely to feel painfully alone because a dear family member or close friend is gone, it is hard not to feel even more lonely when Christmastime comes.

Everyone experiences losses in life. And most of the people who are smiling, socializing, and spreading good cheer at this time of year have grieved before and may be grieving now. But especially for a newly bereaved person, it looks like everyone is happy. Only you are not.

Some try to bear up, keep a stiff upper lip, and smile to spare others from worrying. Some want to give up. Close the door, ignore the phone, shut out the unremitting joyousness, and wait for it all to go away.

“We’ve been sold the concept of Christmas is the time that everyone is happy, the roast is perfectly cooked, all the gifts are perfect, everyone is thrilled,” said Susan Desmarais, bereavement counselor at Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. “People get the feeling that everyone else is having that day, and they’re not.”

“Grief is a lonely journey at any time,” said Ms. Desmarais, “and at this time of year we feel extra lonely because everybody else is happy.”

Ms. Desmarais, who moved to the Vineyard in 1999, has been with Hospice since this summer, after serving as outreach worker for the Edgartown Council on Aging. Receiving her BS from Worcester State University, Ms. Desmarais did graduate studies at Antioch and Lesley University. At Hospice, she works with individuals, families, and groups. She recently held a workshop on grieving during the holidays and will offer a follow-up meeting on January 8, at 5:30 pm. She plans to hold monthly grief support groups.

“I believe this work is a calling,” she said. “I am doing what I was born to do.”

Hospice offers grief counseling services free of charge to anyone who is bereaved, not only to relatives of Hospice patients.

“I felt comforted by being in a group of people who also were grieving,” said one grateful participant at the workshop. “I had been feeling so utterly alone, like I was the only person in the whole world going through this. I needed to hear the things I was thinking and doing were very normal for the grieving process.”

In an interview at the spacious new Hospice offices in the Tisbury Market Place, Ms. Desmarais discussed grief and why it is often more intense during the holidays. She also offered tips for the bereaved person on how to cope with these difficult days.

The holiday season is harder for someone who is bereaved because it is a busy, stressful time, Ms. Desmarais explained. Grief can be exhausting, and adding pressures of holiday preparations can seem overwhelming. She pointed out that, because people are busier than usual and likely to be wrapped up in activities with their own families, they might be less available to talk with a grieving friend. The bereaved individual may be hesitant to seek support, feeling that friends are too busy to help, and not wanting to be a burden or make others sad.

“If we can reach out to others and ask for support, other people who care about us will feel good about giving support and being there for us,” Ms. Desmarais said.

Everyone experiences grief differently, Ms. Desmarais cautioned, but that whether a loved one dies suddenly or after years of a long illness it is still hard to bear. Even when a death was months or years ago, the holidays may renew feelings of grief and loss. Grief can last a long time, she said, something that is difficult in a society where survivors are often expected to recover quickly.

“There will be good days and bad days,” Ms. Desmarais said. “Grief is very fluid. Two steps forward, one step back.”

As holidays near, the grieving person may feel anxious, believing that he or she should make plans. Well-meaning friends may extend invitations, but the idea of going out can feel overwhelming.

“It’s okay not to know what you want to do,” Ms. Desmarais said. She recommended keeping plans flexible. Let the prospective host know you may choose to attend at the last minute, or accept the invitation but explain you may not feel up to it when the day arrives.

Ms. Desmarais urges those who are grieving to be gentle to themselves and feel free to say no to invitations, to skip putting up a tree, and to stay home with a book or movie.

“Try to connect with what it is you need, not what people tell you that you need,” she said. “Making deliberate choices not to participate in certain parties or dinners can be a very good way of taking care of yourself.”

But she strongly cautions against too much isolation, especially staying home alone for too long after the holidays are over. “That’s a time when you have to reach out for help,” she said. “There’s a balance that’s important.”

Since stress and grief are exhausting, and may be most intense at holiday time, Ms. Desmarais gave some common-sense advice for self-care. Eat well, be sure to rest, and get outside for fresh air and exercise.

Many people find it comforting to honor a lost loved one by lighting a special candle on holidays and other meaningful times. Creating a home memorial with photos and other reminders of the person who has died can be soothing. Setting a place at the table, leaving a favorite chair empty, and raising a glass at the family dinner are concrete ways to lovingly include someone who is no longer here.

Ms. Desmarais also offered suggestions for those

who are concerned about a grieving friend or relative. Ask gently if there is anything you can do, or if they would like to talk over lunch or coffee. But if the person says no, simply let them know you are thinking of them and are available if they have a change of heart.

“The greatest gift you can give someone is your time and compassion,” she said. “The best present you can give is your presence.”

Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard offers 24-hour telephone coverage for anyone in need of nursing or bereavement services. Call 508-693-0189.