New traditions may help with grief during holiday season, expert says

HALIFAX – The holidays can be a difficult time for anyone mourning a loss and dealing with grief in their life.

Nova Scotia-based grief counsellor Sue Smiley says during the holidays there is so much focus on being with loved ones and giving gifts, there’s added pressure on grieving individuals to take part and act like nothing has changed in their lives.

According to Smiley, the holidays are marketed in a way that can cause us to have picture-perfect expectations of how we’re supposed to celebrate the season and how we’re supposed to act and feel.

“You see these images in movies and on TV and it even further exacerbates (this),” she said in an interview with Global News.

One of the things a grieving person should not do during the holidays is to try to keep everything like it was before they suffered a loss.

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A loss could be a family member, a relationship, a job, or even something as simple as missing an important item. But, we tend to only grieve a loss when it’s something that we are emotionally invested in, Smiley said.

“It’s better to create new traditions,” she explained. “The void will only grow. You need new rituals.”

The holiday season is a great time to rethink what’s important to us and how we can help others, especially those in mourning, according to Smiley.

“What I love about December is that you do these random acts of kindness and [the recipients] don’t fear you,” she said. “The smaller the gesture, the more joy.”

That sort of token is something anyone who is grieving a loss, whether their struggle is visible or not, will appreciate.

In North America, Smiley said, there is a “death-denying culture” and we tend not to address grief as often as we should. People also avoid discussing grief for fear of saying the wrong thing or hurting someone’s feelings.

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“[But] One of the biggest mistakes we make is we let it be the elephant in the room,” she said. “My purpose has been to make the most difficult conversations visible.”

When someone dies, we embrace grief as a group or community because it’s “socially sanctioned.”

It’s a time when people can be more open with emotions, she said.

“I would love to have the power to be inside everybody’s head at a funeral… There’s other things at play.”

Grief that people have bottled up in the past tends to come out of the cracks in our “armour” and when we’re mourning a death, we grieve for other losses in our lives.

But, people not directly affected by a loss move on a lot faster and sometimes expect the grieving person to do the same.

“We have very tight time frames on [grief],” she said.

Smiley said one of the first things people suffering a major loss can experience from those around them is a “social death” — when people begin to avoid the grieving person.

“Grieving people just want someone to acknowledge their grief. They don’t want it to be fixed, but they don’t want it to be ignored.”

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So offering them a helping hand, lending an ear to listen or a kind deed during the holidays can go a long way — much more than material gifts can.

“It’s okay to do the wrong thing,” she said. “Just do something.”

What you can do to deal with grief during the holidays

New traditions: As Smiley suggested, creating or adapting traditions can go a long way to helping you cope with grief. It could be something simple as having another person prepare dinner or having a moment of silence for a loved one that you may have lost.

There are many people that are in need during this time of year and offering to help someone else could also go a long way to offering you some relief from your loss. Consider helping out a local shelter or soup kitchen in your area; offer to spend time with someone that is housebound or something as simple as making a donation in someone’s or something’s name.

Check with organizations in your area to see what you may be able to help out.

One thing some grief experts suggest that you not do is overcompensate during this time of year by accepting invitations to every party or event. You don’t want to isolate yourself, but trying to “keep busy” can just cause more stress. Accept invitations to a few engagements, just not too many.

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Don’t try to forget: You many have lost someone, a job, a pet or a relationship, but just because it’s the holidays it does not mean it’s the time to ignore that loss. You can incorporate who or what you’re missing into your traditions.

Consider buying a special ornament or memento to commemorate who or what you’re grieving, have a toast in someone’s honour or going through old photographs. If you’re mourning the death of someone, think about visiting their grave site and taking time to properly remember them.

Someone to talk to: An important thing to remember is that you don’t have to hide your feelings. No one wants to be the downer at a celebration, but burying your grief inside won’t help you either.

Not everybody feels like they can reach out to their family and friends to express sadness. There are a number of services and groups across Canada that can help you though difficult times, especially during the festive season. Some offer services 24/7 or can be contacted online. 


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