By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
BETTENDORF — Whether it’s attending a Christmas party for the first time after a spouse’s death, unpacking Christmas decorations after the loss of a child or posing for a Christmas picture after a family member has passed, the holiday season can bring waves of emotion for people experiencing grief.
“The holidays are full of emotional ambushes … be ready,” Chris McCormick Pries told a grief support group at St. John Vianney Parish during a “GriefShare: Surviving the Holidays” program Dec. 3. A parish health minister who works as clinical director for Vera French Community Mental Health Center in Davenport, she facilitated the program with support from other health ministers from the parish. “We would like to give you ways to get through the holidays that will be helpful to you and your families.”
The key to handling this time of “high expectations and many traditions” is to be intentional, Pries said. Anticipate grief “triggers” and prepare for them as much as possible. Accept that your feelings might change last minute. Don’t feel pressured to participate in something just because it is a tradition — do what is right for you, she emphasized. “People experience their journeys through grief very differently.”
“There are no laws about shedding tears,” replied one participant.
When making an RSVP to holiday parties, it’s OK to offer a tentative “yes,” Pries said. It’s also important to make sure you have a way to leave the party quickly if necessary. It’s helpful to anticipate some of the common questions people will have, and plan how to respond.
Often, friends and loved ones will feel awkward and not know how to act around someone who has lost a loved one. “People who love you are often paralyzed about what to say out of fear that they will make you uncomfortable,” Pries said. Let people know what you are feeling and set boundaries. One way to do this is to send a letter to loved ones at the beginning of the season. “Be intentional about how you feel about your grief and what you need from people.”
Don’t be afraid to eliminate or change holiday traditions — either permanently or temporarily. Pries encouraged the group to make lists of holiday traditions and evaluate which ones they’d like to do, and which ones they’d prefer not to do. “Think about what you want to do and take care of yourself,” Pries said. New traditions can help make the holidays more cheerful, as well. Some people may feel guilty about starting new traditions or enjoying the holidays too much without the loved one present, but moving forward does not imply that the deceased loved one — and the traditions shared — were any less important.
Even with careful planning, emotions will come up unexpectedly. Music at Christmas Mass is a common trigger, for example. Shedding a few tears is normal; step out for a few minutes if it gets to be too much, Pries said.
When negative thoughts creep in and seem overwhelming, “It is important to challenge yourself and ask ‘What can I do to redirect my thinking?’” Pries said. Prayer, Scripture and reflection are all positive diversions, as is reaching out to a friend or family member. Volunteering, too, can help someone to refocus their energy, as long as they are putting their own self-care first.
No matter how painful things get, Pries encouraged the group members not to numb their pain through drugs, alcohol, excessive shopping, overworking or empty sexual relationships. It won’t take away the pain; it will only add to it by way of feelings of regret and shame.
The ultimate source of comfort is God, and leaning on God through times of despair is crucial. Pries reminded the group that God is always there to listen, and that prayer and Scripture can offer tremendous amounts of strength during hard times. Being part of a parish-based grief group throughout the year can offer a sense of community, support and validation for Catholics who are experiencing grief.
At the end of the meeting, Pries offered well wishes to the participants on behalf of the health ministry team. “We hope the peace of the season is with you as you go on this journey.”
Surviving the Holidays
Surviving the Holidays is a GriefShare program. Materials can be found at www.griefshare.org/holidays.