Grieving during the holidays

Counselor shares how to survive

By Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H. - Producer

ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich. - The holiday season is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year" but for people who've suffered the loss of a loved one, it can be the most painful.

The familiar sights and sounds of the season don't feel the same when you're missing someone. In a season filled with joy, the pain of loss can be especially difficult to bear. That's why this is actually the busiest time of the year for many grief counselors, as people seek help to get through the holidays.

Marla Ruhana is a clinical social worker in St. Clair Shores who specializes in grief and loss. She understands firsthand what it's like to grieve during the holidays.

"My father died Dec. 22, and it will be seven years this year and I can honestly say this is the first year that I'm truly looking forward to Christmas," said Ruhana. "Grief is especially difficult during the holiday season, because there are so many memories of loved ones, and holidays in and of themselves are loaded with expectations."

Ruhana says it's OK to not do everything you normally would.

"Grief is all-consuming, and it can be so exhausting, so the thought of even going to do Christmas shopping can be really difficult," said Ruhana. "I recommend that people trust their basic instincts, and truly listen to their gut, and really try not to people please, and just do what's right for them."

While a vacation to escape it all may seem like a good idea, it can simply delay or relocate the grief.

"Sometimes people will say they went somewhere tropical and the sun felt great on their face, but yet the memories of the deceased were still all-consuming," said Ruhana.

To make the holidays easier to bear, Ruhana recommends finding ways to honor your lost loved one.

"I think that maintaining some of the old traditions is extremely important. However, I'm of the mindset that it is very healthy and helpful to create some new rituals and traditions surrounding your loved one," said Ruhana.

Ruhana lights candles in memory of her parents. You could also create a special ornament to honor a loved one or focus on their holiday favorites.

"If they had a favorite food, maybe you'll prepare that every year on Christmas in their memory," said Ruhana. "Maybe you'll create a cookbook of all their favorite recipes and share that with relatives."

Ruhana also recommends writing in a journal.

"I think journaling is an excellent practice. Oftentimes, I recommend that folks write to their loved one who's died, because then they can see their progress," said Ruhana.

A grief counselor or a grief support group, in person or online, can help by bringing you together with people who understand what you're going through.

"Grief can be such a lonesome journey, because many people don't want to talk to you about it.  They don't want to see you suffer," said Ruhana. "We are not the best at coping with grief in our culture."

Ruhana refers to "Worden's Tasks of Mourning" to illustrate the journey of grief.

  • Task #1  To accept the reality of the loss
  • Task #2  To work through the pain of grief
  • Task #3  To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
  • Task #4  To find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.

Ruhana said meditation can also be helpful.  She recommends "Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief" by Martha W. Hickman and "A Guided Meditation to Ease Grief" by Belleruth Naparstek.

While most people expect the first year after a loss to be the hardest, it's often not.

"The second year, from my perspective, is often far worse for many, because you're now thinking of what your life is going to be," explained Ruhana. "That can be extremely difficult for people, having the thoughts of 'This is what my life is going to be.'  Really difficult. And you're no longer (in) that numb stage of the fog, and so I think that the second year, people are stunned when they feel that it's far worse."

Ruhana said the anticipation of the holiday and the events leading up to it are often more difficult than the day itself.   People are often caught off guard by everyday things that unexpectedly trigger their pain.

If you know someone who is grieving this holiday season, don't ignore it.

"Really be compassionate towards people who are grieving," urged Ruhana.

If you aren't sure what to say, "It's OK not to say anything," said Ruhana.  "And just offer a listening ear and hugs, maybe prepare a meal."

Remember, there is hope.

"With time, you never forget your loved one, and you learn to incorporate them in your life in a different way," said Ruhana. "People are so hard on themselves in the midst of grief, and they say, 'You know Marla, I just want to feel normal again.'  And I tell them, 'If you felt normal, I would worry.'"

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