Making space for grief over the 2021 holidays
With the holiday season upon us, many Americans are grappling with grief after losing someone to COVID-19, isolation and depression, or diseases and accidents that would occur in any given year. But we’re not talking a lot about it, especially during what can be billed as “the most wonderful time of the year.”
This is my second holiday season with fresh grief. My colleague and friend Hannah Colton died suddenly last November and a year later to the day, my dad, Tom Jones, passed away peacefully at home. Coping with profound loss can make getting in the holiday spirit feel impossible.
Christmas was my dad’s favorite. My mom, Patty Jones, said he’d write her a letter every Christmas Eve reflecting with gratitude on the home they’d created together. And on Christmas morning, he’d have us kids wait at the top of the stairs, boiling with anticipation, as he propped the big home video camera on his shoulder and documented the decorations and presents set beside the crackling fireplace in the living room.
While I haven’t raced my siblings down the stairs to see what Santa brought in many years, it’s rituals like these that can make a loved one’s absence during a holiday so stark.
“The holidays is when we are used to family traditions and closeness,” said Dr. Peggy DeLong, a licensed psychologist who penned the article Coping with Loss During the Holidays after experiencing it herself. “A time that previously brought the family so much joy can turn and be a time of elevated pain.”
She said people who are grieving may find themselves at a holiday gathering not knowing what to do.
“Anticipate the difficult moments and plan for them, because they can be turned into something very meaningful,” said DeLong.
If a loved one who’s died cooked a specific dish, maybe someone else would find it healing to make it this year. If that person’s role was to speak before dinner, maybe another family member can begin a new tradition by sharing something in their place.
"For some people, seeing the empty chair [at the dinner table] may be too painful and they don't even want the chair in the room,” said DeLong. “For others, it might be to fill it with a physical representation of that person. Other people might invite a guest.”
Delong said it's OK for the holidays to be different.
“It’s really hard not to judge yourself when you’re wanting to feel a certain way, but it’s just not happening,” she said. “So, being really careful about watching those thoughts and having just some more compassion for the self.”
And if a surprisingly lovely or fun moment arises?
“It's helpful to remember that it's not a betrayal to experience joy,” said DeLong. “In fact, it can be one way to honor that person's memory.
Children are often the face of holiday joy, but many across the state end up grieving through the season. Prior to the pandemic, New Mexico had the second highest rate of childhood bereavement in the country and the state now also has one of the highest rates of caregiver loss due to COVID-19, with Native American children over 10 times as likely as their white peers to lose a caregiver to the virus.
Jade Richardson Bock, executive director of the Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico, encourages families to include children in planning conversations related to the death of their loved one, even if it sounds hard.
“Mr. Rogers said, ‘If it's mentionable, it's manageable,’” said Richardson Bock. “It's okay to feel out of your depth. It's also okay to show your feelings. I trust the guardians to know when to bring up these hard topics. I always say sooner is better than later.”
She said adults don’t have to be childhood development experts to include kids in holiday traditions. They can channel a time when an elder taught them a skill as a child, she said, and try a similar approach.
Before that though, Richardson Bock encourages adults to begin with telling children the truth about what death means in a straightforward way.
“It's important to have that concrete understanding that death is permanent before we can really move on through the grief and how their lives will be changed,” she said.
Then adults can open the floor for questions, she said, and feel OK admitting when they don’t know the answer. She also said it’s important, if that adult is also grieving, that they take breaks.
“Always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting those traveling with you,” she reminded adults who are grieving along with the children in their lives. “If you can get outside and take a walk for seven minutes, you can start to change how your brain is feeling.”
Richardson Bock said even though research shows lots of examples of poor outcomes for children who have a caregiver or sibling who dies, the right support can make a big difference.
"There's also a million examples of what we call post-traumatic growth. And that is a life of possibility you never imagined, but it's a beautiful and rich experience,” she said.
Children, but also adults regardless of whether they have a child in their life, can receive free bereavement support from the Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico.
And I'm wishing those of you who are also grieving peace, strength, and healing this holiday season and beyond.