Camille Wortman PhD
Dilemmas Associated with the Holiday Season
The Requirement of Cheerfulness. There is an expectation
during the holidays that people should be cheerful. One mourner
explained that she hated going to holiday gatherings. “I could not be
cheerful and I did not want to bring other people down by being sad.
Going to such gatherings is like having to eat liver and pretending you
like it, ” she said.
The Mine Field of Social Exchanges. On many occasions,
the innocent remarks of others may put a knife through the mourner’s
heart. Shortly after the death of their son, the parents attended a
holiday dinner hosted by the boy’s grandparents. The host began the meal
with a blessing, “Thank you for bringing the whole family together.”
The father was so distressed by this remark that he left the table.
“Then I felt even worse,” he said, “because I had disrupted the
gathering for everyone else.” Mourners can be thrown off guard by the
remarks of complete strangers—for example, being admonished by a store
clerk, “I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday.” As one
bereaved husband indicated, “ You think of many responses, but you keep
them to yourself.”
The Complexity of Decisions. Bereaved individuals must
navigate a difficult path in deciding how to handle decisions about
family activities and rituals. As one mourner indicated, “I was not
sure whether I should hang my son’s stocking or not. I decided to hang
it, because after all he is my son. But my husband thought that this
was not a good idea. He told me that I was ‘in denial.’”
The Ambush. During the holidays, mourners are often hit
by powerful feelings that are evoked by some reminder of the loss.
Consequently, they experience what Noel and Blair (2000) have called
“the ambush.” As one mother explained, “I was taking out the Christmas
ornaments and I came across an ornament that Timmy had made in
kindergarten last year. It had his hand print on it. I dissolved into
tears.” These events, which are unexpected and unpredictable, are also
called “blindside reminders,” “zingers,” and “grief attacks.” Although
natural and normal, such experiences are often frightening in their
intensity. They literally can take the mourner’s breath away and bring
about heart palpitations and other symptoms.
Mourner’s Suggestions for Things to Try
Plan Ahead. Don’t allow the holidays to just happen.
Also, try to use a Plan A/Plan B approach to the holidays. Plan A might
involve spending Christmas or Hanukkah with relatives; Plan B might
mean having a simple dinner and watching a movie at home. Having a Plan
B can be comforting even if you don’t use it.
Arrange a Family Meeting or a conference call to discuss
how you would like to spend the holiday season. Let everyone in your
family have a say, even the children.
Consider Changing Your Routine. If you always prepared
the family meal, you may want to consider having dinner with relatives
or friends. Or you may want to leave town altogether, heading for a
cabin in the woods or an excursion to the mountains or the shore.
Take Charge of Your Social Life. Although you may not
feel like getting together with anyone, consider accepting a few
invitations to be with close family or friends. Choose to be around
people who make you feel comfortable and safe. Avoid social events that
seem more like obligation.
Scale Back. Because grief robs us of our emotional and
physical energy, consider cutting back on such holiday tasks as sending
cards, baking, decorating, or putting up a tree. Some of these
activities may be painful to execute in light of the loss. One woman
who lost a child stated that, “It broke my heart to write three names on
the holiday cards instead of four, so I stopped sending cards.” Let
others know that you may not be able to do things that you have done in
Be Gentle With Yourself. Accept that feelings of anguish
are difficult to avoid during the holiday season. Do not expect too
much of yourself, and recognize that you are doing the best you can.
Have an Exit Strategy. In many cases, it is difficult for mourners to
be around a lot of people. If they do go to a social gathering, they
may not want to stay very long. This problem can be dealt with by
developing an exit strategy in advance. For example, a widower may tell
the hostess that, “I may need to leave early because I get tired
Honor Your Loved One’s Memory. Some people have maintained
that coming up with ways to do this can bring a positive focus to our
grief. There are many ways to remember the person who died: share your
favorite stories about him; light a candle in remembrance; make a
donation in her name. You might also consider making a list of positive
qualities that your loved one brought into the world. Another idea is
to spend time working on a goal or value that was important to the
deceased. If your father was very involved in conservation efforts, for
example, you might volunteer your time to a group working towards
conservation, or consider making a donation to this cause.
Find People Who Will Provide Support. When people are
already experiencing the great stress of grief, the additional strains
of the holiday season can create distress that is almost unbearable.
Thus it is important to identify those relatives and friends whom you
feel are good listeners, and share your feelings with them. It may also
help to recruit support for specific tasks that are particularly
difficult. For example, a bereaved father found it heart-wrenching to
go Christmas shopping alone because it upset him to encounter presents
his daughter would have enjoyed. He asked a neighbor to accompany him
to the mall so that he could purchase presents for his surviving
children. “John helped me to focus so that I could get the job done,” he
Consider Attending a Support Group. At this time of year,
it can be particularly useful to interact with people who have
experienced a loss that is similar to yours. Such individuals are likely
to understand exactly what you are going through. In many cases,
members will also be able to share strategies for dealing with the
challenges of the holidays. As Rosof (1994) has indicated, those who
have experienced a similar loss can also help us to understand that our
feelings and fears are normal under the circumstances.
Because of the difficulties inherent at this time of year, it is
easy for mourners to feel that they are making little headway in dealing
with their loss. Noel and Blair (2000) have suggested that mourners
may be moving forward even when they are unaware of it. According to
these authors, “Wherever you are in the grief process… We know it’s
hard—and we also know it gets less hard. The next time a special
occasion, anniversary or holiday comes around you will feel a little
more in control, a little less pained, the situation will be a little
less difficult and you will begin to celebrate life again—one day" (p.
Noel, B., & Blair, P. D. (2000) I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Vancouver, Washington: Champion Press.
Rosof, B. D., (1994) The worst loss. New York: Henry Holt and Company.