How To Grieve When Everyone Else Is Celebrating
Breaking up, separating or divorcing is devastating at any time of the year but can feels especially horrible when it happens during the holiday season. This time of year is filled with images of happy families and joyful, loving couples exchanging meaningful gifts and sharing loving moments. The juxtaposition of these images and your reality is jarring. There is also the expectation for you to attend all the holiday events and join in the celebrations. All of this can leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
I have worked with many clients who have had to navigate losses during the holiday season. We talk about how they will tolerate all of the complicated feelings they get hit with: loss, grief, anger, betrayal, guilt, relief, terror, or rage. We discuss how they will move into the healing portion of a break up and talk through how to keep themselves together, safe and balanced during the holiday parties, events, trips and gift exchanges.
So if you are newly single right now please take a look at my Holiday Survival List. It is for both those who left and those who got left behind. Hopefully it will help you navigate this crazy time.
Plan For Crazy
The only normal, rational response to a break up to feel kinda crazy: numb, tearful, angry, anxious, and unable to connect. And add in seeing your family for a “fun and meaningful” holiday and you will most likely feel overwhelmed. You need to know that you are not going to be yourself right now and you need to lower your expectations of yourself: allow others to do the cooking, purchase the pies instead of baking all weekend and maybe even say no to the parties. Another aspect of this “crazy” time is that it will be difficult to feel the Holiday Spirit. So you need to lower you expectations about the Holiday and how connected, joyful or at peace you will be able to feel.
It is never too early to begin planning. It is important to think through your needs for the upcoming Holiday Season: what you will need to get through the parties, the family gatherings, the inevitable questions, as well as the quiet nights at home alone. What do you need when you are feeling “crazy.” Some need a quiet night at home and others need loud get-togethers with friends. Once you have an idea of what you need you can begin to arrange plans.
Allow For Plans To Change
Your moods and needs will change quickly right now. You might think you are fine to go to the 7-course formal dinner only to find that once at the restaurant, you feel claustrophobic, can’t stop crying, and need to leave. Then when you leave, you get hit with the guilt at abandoning your family and disappointing them. A better option is to let everyone involved know ahead of time that you may need to change plans because of what is going on. Then you don’t have to sort though the guilt as well as the overwhelming grief you are feeling. Sometimes just having the permission to leave if you need to can help you feel less trapped.
One great way to open these conversations is with the phrase “I need your help...” Your family and friends love you and want to help - but most of us get caught up in our own needs during the holiday season and can use a gentle reminder that you are hurting and in need.
Have Someone On Call
You need to recruit a team to help support you during this time. Please do not try to “gut it out” alone. I think that tagging a friend or family member as “base” can be helpful at events. This is someone you can check-in with periodically. You get a chance to take the fake smile off and talk to honestly for a minute or two before you jump back into the event. Having a friend “on call” to text with can also be helpful. Let this friend know that they need to text you a “hi” or a joke every 15 minutes during difficult events or just ask them keep their phones on hand in case you need a quick reassuring word.
Plan A Distraction
Sometimes when we are grieving and hour of socializing can feel like a year. One thing that can help is to find a “job” for yourself. Name yourself the nanny or playmate for the kids or be the dishwasher for all meals. The point is to have something to do to keep you busy and distracted.
There may also be many people who will want to talk about your loss even when you don’t want or need to. I find that having a rehearsed topic that engenders strong opinions can be helpful to distract these people - something like the Kardashians, the election or the Redskins quarterback. Bring up your topic - even if you have to interrupt them - and it will catch their attention. Then you can politely excuse yourself because you are expected at the kids table for coloring.
Plan For The Day After
People tend to be great at planning how to get through the holiday itself but then forget to plan anything for the day after. They gear up for Thanksgiving and then have nothing in place for Black Friday. And as a result, they can experience a crash or a flood of emotion on this day. Make sure that you Holiday Survival Plan includes what you will need to get through these days as well.
Grieving a loss is difficult. Grieving a loss while pretending to be jolly is almost impossible. My most important piece of advise is to give yourself a break - starting right now. Remember to breathe, ask for help, listen to your needs and please consider therapy as an additional support for yourself. Your insurance company or Employee Assistance Program can both help you get in touch with a therapist.