The pain of losses sustained during the past seems to be heightened at this time of year. Widowed persons, in particular, often feel depressed during the holiday season and facing the holidays can be a daunting challenge. Holidays are thought of as family times, so memories may be stronger and the absence of a loved one felt even more than usual. It may seem like everyone else is happy and rejoicing with their close-knit families. But, despite these feelings, there are ways to feel less alone, to make the most of the holidays, and even enjoy the season and relax.
Hospice social worker Jamie McLean said that holidays are full of sensory triggers which, when experienced, can bring on strong emotions. For example, hearing a special song, smelling pine or baked goods or reading Christmas cards from friends may bring back memories of a lost loved one. Cherish these memories: While they may be painful now, they will grow more precious with time.
McLean offers the following advice: Most importantly, plan ahead. Make a plan for how you want to manage the season. Minimize stress. Give yourself permission to let go of some of your family holiday rituals and pare down your responsibilities: Do you really have to bake 12 kinds of cookies? If this is your first December alone, acknowledge that this holiday will be different and perhaps sad.
Set your priorities: decide which activities and traditions are most important to you. This will make it easier to phase out some of your less desirable family traditions. Feel free to start a new tradition as you begin a new phase in your life.
Rituals to honor loved ones help make holidays especially meaningful. Donate a gift of money or time to those less fortunate, in memory of your loved one. Hang a special ornament on the Christmas tree with his/her name on it. Light a special candle or donate a poinsettia at church or temple in their memory. Make a book of photographs and memories of your loved one to share with friends or family members.
Talking with someone you trust about your feelings is especially important. When you are sad or need to cry, go ahead. Most people understand that tears are natural and healing when a person is grieving. If you would like to talk with others who have recently lost a loved one, you may want to call Sue Nielsen at 586-6424. Southeast Senior Services offers an in-home counseling program for seniors wanting to talk privately with a caring professional. Counselor Nils Dihle can be reached at 463-6163. Hospice invites people who are experiencing grief to call 463-3113. The hospice staff has many helpful ideas for healing.
Be patient with yourself. Your energy level may be low and your ability to concentrate may be weak. Persons coping with grief during the holidays often feel overwhelmed and confused. Grieving affects us physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually and is very hard work. Allow yourself extra time in accomplishing tasks.
Last, but not least, pamper yourself. One of the best ways to make the most of the holiday season is to be good to yourself. Buy yourself something special. You have experienced one of the most difficult losses in life. Take time out for rest and relaxation - just a few minutes of quiet each day and an enjoyable activity once a week will do wonders to ease the stress of grief and make the season one of pleasure, not pressure.
Marianne Mills oversees senior citizen nutrition and transportation programs in Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, and Yakutat as a staff member of Southeast Senior Services, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.