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Struggling with grief or loss this holiday season? Advice on how to cope

“The most important thing is to do some planning, to think in advance about the events and the emotions they may trigger,” says the U of M’s Mary Jo Kreitzer.

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The holiday season can be a time of joy, anticipation and reunion, but for people who’ve recently lost a loved one, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years can also seem like a minefield of anxiety, anger and depression.

For a grieving person, those feelings are normal and even part of the healing process, said Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing.

“During the holidays, if a grieving person is having a moment where they are feeling sad or down or disconnected, it is important to know that that is normal,” she said. “Moments that used to bring joy can also trigger grief.”

Kreitzer, whose research interests include mindfulness-based stress reduction, has spent the last 20 years focused on the field of integrative health and medicine, building the Center for Spirituality and Healing from a small program focused on improving patient care through integrative medicine into a full-fledged academic department, with more than 60 faculty members offering 50 academic courses to some 800 students.

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On the busy, bustling day before Thanksgiving, Kreitzer took a moment to talk with me about coping with grief during a time of celebration — and about ways people struggling with loss can still find meaning and hope in the season.

MinnPost: Is it common for people who’ve lost a loved one to struggle during the holidays?

Mary Jo Kreitzer: It is a much bigger issue than people realize. We often think of the holidays as a happy time, but for some people it is extremely stressful. And it’s not just people who have faced the death of a loved one who feel these conflicted emotions. Such feelings can also be triggered by grief or loss due to divorce, shifting family structures, economic struggles — all kinds of stressors.

Part of the reason why the holidays are often hard for people is because we have so many expectations of how things should happen at this time of year. For many families it is a time of joyous celebration. A death or other loss in the family makes everything different. There is a question of, “How do we do the holidays now? Will they ever be the same?”

MP: Even anticipating events or traditions that used to be happy times can be difficult for those in grief. Do you have suggestions for coping with those traumas?

MJK: The most important thing is to do some planning, to think in advance about the events and the emotions they may trigger. Ahead of those trigger moments, family members should talk with each other about what things would be helpful to them during the holidays, what events and activities would feel meaningful and whom do they want to spend their time with.  

It is always a good thing for people to talk openly about their feelings of grief if they’ve had a loss. If somebody is not at the table who was there last year, it is a wonderful time for everyone to take a moment, to talk about their memories and recall what they miss and what they loved about the person who is now gone.

One mistake is to go on with business as usual during the holidays. Sometimes we don’t want to bring up someone who’s died because we think it will make the other people around us sad. But everyone is already thinking about that person anyway, and it is better to speak our feelings out loud.

MP: What are some good ways to “speak those feelings out loud?”

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Mary Jo Kreitzer
Photo by Dan Marshall
Mary Jo Kreitzer

MJK: One way is to ask family members or friends to think of ways that they can incorporate their feelings of loss into the holiday experience. It is good to encourage people to talk about their feelings and then act on them, too.

Oftentimes it is stories. Stories are the fabric that holds us together as families, as a society. Storytelling can be done in really informal ways, like naturally bringing up the person when you are sitting around the table or relaxing by the fire, talking about your favorite stories and favorite memories of that person.

Or it can be a more formal approach. I know of a family who asked people to write out a story about the person they had lost and then they created a memory book.

MP: After a loss, some people prefer to just skip holiday celebrations altogether. What do you think about that approach?

MJK: What if someone doesn’t want to celebrate the holidays and there are young kids involved? If there is a very recent death in the family, that takes time and processing to figure out what exactly kids understand about death and dying. Pulling the holiday out altogether isn’t always the best thing in terms of the kids’ mental health.  

The best approach is to plan ahead and ask people what traditions are most meaningful to them. Keeping all holiday traditions the same works for some families. Making some things different works for other families.

For so many people the holidays are already a time of enormous stress. A lot of that built in around expectations that families should be perfect. But nobody’s family is perfect. For instance, there are so many expectations around food and gifts and traditions. I think it is critical to step back and really look at what is truly meaningful and important to everyone and then pare down expectations around that.

MP: What specific stress-reducing advice would you offer to a grieving person at this time of year?

MJK: I like to encourage people to be mindful of their own bodies, to get rest, eat well and set limits around what they want to do at this time. Taking care of your own health and well-being, getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising can help eliminate and reduce stress. Now is a good time to set some limits around the kind of things that you are willing to do this holiday season. Don’t overschedule. Listen to your heart.  

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MP: What about that family member who always picks a fight around the holiday dinner table? What can a grieving person do to keep the fireworks to a minimum?  

MJK: Be realistic and plan for what might happen, so if you have a family member who creates drama every year when you get together, don’t expect that it won’t happen again this year just because there has been a loss in the family. If it’s happened for nine out of the last 10 years, anticipate it. Don’t be surprised. Instead, think about how to take the high road. Think about ways to keep their behavior in perspective.

MP: You talk about the stress of shifting family structures. How does that create a sense of loss?

MJK: I really think that when people have adult kids, the holidays can also be a stressful time. It’s not grief, exactly, but it can be a true feeling of loss, or at least a stretching of resources. Everybody wants the adult kids and their families to be everyplace, just like they used to be.

I have four adult children. When you try to split all holidays 50-50, it just creates so much drama and stress. Maybe it’s time to come to the realization that you can still celebrate the holiday together with your adult children, but not on the actual holiday. It is the being together that counts, not the being together on a specific date.