Coping with loss can be tricky during the "ho, ho, ho" season.
A close friend lost her father-in-law earlier this month. One way her family handled the "how to deal with grief" question: They dedicated their family Christmas letter to "Pops." "We want to celebrate his life by remembering our year in terms of 'Pop-isms,'" they wrote.
One entry: "Pops on travel: 'Always get to the airport three hours before check-in.'" And then they talked about their family travels.
Another entry: "Pops on being his children's greatest fans. 'Let your kids know every day that you love them and are proud of them.'" And then they talked about their kids – his grandchildren.
Yet another entry: "Pops on service: 'Always look for opportunities to give back.'" And then they talked about collecting Crocs (500 pairs!) and traveling to Kenya with others from their church to distribute them and give medical help.
Several of my favorite therapists gave a thumbs-up to this holiday-card celebration of Pops' life. "I love that!" says Beverly Hills, Calif., psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent.
Some other advice on dealing with death and coping with loss during a season when you feel as if you should be publicly joyful:
Don't keep your grief to yourself. "Do not deny your sadness," says Walfish, who lost her own father earlier this year. "Acknowledge and validate and accept that you deeply miss your loved one."
Talk about your loved one. My friend's holiday letter is a good catalyst. "People who knew the person, they'll laugh and chime in with memories," says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? "They'll actually feel a lot better. Talk about the loss. It's on everyone's mind."
Indulge in fond memories. "Find comfort and healing and joy or pleasure in the memories," says Walfish. "I hear my dad's voice every day in my head," she says. "My dad had an amazing sense of humor, and I'm constantly finding myself laughing and thinking of what my father would have said. I find that extremely comforting – to now his body is gone but his spirit is ever alive."
Honor your loved one. What you do will depend on your own family. "In our house, and this is very individual and family specific, no one sits at the head of the table in my father's chair," she says. "When we do holiday dinners, we all sit around the table, but dad's chair is empty. In a way, as much as it marks his not being there, he is there with us. I'll look at his chair when I want to say, 'Hey, what did you think of this, dad?'"
Celebrate your missing family member. "What if you told people to 'bring your memories of dad?'" says Hindy, who, like Walfish, lost his father earlier this year. If they're asked to bring old photos and stories, holiday guests will know everyone will not be uptight about the topic.
Don't deny the death occurred. "It's like the letter. Let's play it up," says Hindy. "The problem comes from avoiding and thinking everyone wants to avoid it when it is on everyone's mind. It's the fact of the loss that brings everyone together…It's the opposite of, 'We're going over to see mom for Christmas, but we shouldn't mention dad died.'"
Give yourself permission to be cheerful. "Allow yourself to be sad and joyful at the same tie," says Walfish. "Some people feel guilty when they're enjoying the holidays. There's no need to feel guilty because, remember, your loved one would have wanted you to be happy and go forward."
Stay active. "The worst thing is to spend too much time in your house without appointments or places to go and people to see," says Walfish. "Isolation breeds depression."
Reach out to others. Walfish is spending "every free moment" with her mom, she says. "Get outside yourself. It can be helpful to some people to find someone in need and give rather than focus on yourself. There's healing in the act of giving. It's nourishing to the soul."
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