Dealing with Loss During the Holidays

by Stephanie Dodaro

Although dealing with grief is difficult any time of year, the holiday season can magnify the bereaved’s sense of sadness and loss. The holidays are traditionally spent with friends and family, making merry and celebrating traditions. For those going through divorce, caring for the terminally ill, or mourning, the festivities can remind them of their loved one’s absence and serve as a sharp contrast to their suffering. Other holiday obligations such as depressed, lonely woman during the holidaysbuying gifts, traveling, and spending time with difficult or unsupportive relatives can further strain the bereaved. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with grief during the holidays, or feel like you may be experiencing depression, reach out for support.

It’s important to understand the difference between the normal grieving process and clinical depression. Bereavement is a normal, albeit painful, part of life. Although the length and style of the grieving process varies from person to person and culture to culture, it’s typified by intense feelings of sadness and loss.

Both mourners and those with depression may feel sad or isolated, have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite, and take little interest or pleasure in doing things. They may feel that their emotions and circumstances are out of their control.

However, depression also includes more self-destructive symptoms, such as constant anxiety, agitation, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of hurting oneself.

While mourners are also occasionally cheered by happy memories of loved ones, those with depression experience unrelenting negative feelings and self-talk. In addition, though grief eventually subsides and people begin to come to terms with their losses, depression is a physical illness that doesn’t relent and can’t be reasoned or willed away.

To further complicate the diagnosis, stress and grieving can worsen symptoms for people with depression and trigger episodes in those who are prone to it.

If you are working through grief during the holiday season, here are some coping tips and tools to keep in mind:

  • Accept your emotions. You may be feeling intense emotions or trying to avoid thinking about your loss. You may be on an emotional roller coaster; happily recalling a cherished memory one minute and disconsolate the next. Everyone handles the mourning process differently, and it’s okay to feel whatever your emotions may be in a given moment.
  • Avoid stressful family celebrations. Although family provides a unique sense of belonging and support, especially during times of loss, holiday get-togethers with relatives are often cited as the biggest source of seasonal stress. Avoid or limit the time you spend with difficult or unsupportive family members who may make you feel worse.
  • Lean on your support system. Call or spend time with family and friends that will console and encourage you. Schedule dates ahead of time to make sure you get time on their busy calendars. You’ll feel a little more in control and will also have things to look forward to.
  • Honor your loved ones however you see fit. Decide whether it seems more appropriate to attend holiday get-togethers or stay home and spend time by yourself or with immediate family. Create a ritual to memorialize your loved one, such as lighting a candle or taking one of their favorite walks, and ask others to join you for support.
  • Ensure you have enough alone time. It’s important to have time to yourself, so you can process your feelings without interruption. If you’re at a gathering and find you’re having a difficult moment, feel free to excuse yourself.
  • Give back. Sometimes we find the biggest consolation in helping others and creating happiness or comfort for them. Take advantage of time off to volunteer your time and skills to a local charity or donate to a worthy cause. You might choose to help an organization that assists those who may have the same issue or challenges as your loved one. You might also get support and consolation along the way.
  • Try to minimize expectations. Remember that holiday celebrations can’t take away our feelings of loneliness, sadness, or grief.

If you are grieving and feel overwhelmed, don’t have the energy to take care of yourself, or have had depressive symptoms for more than two weeks, please don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Your health care provider can help determine whether you’re experiencing prolonged mourning or clinical depression, and recommend appropriate care. They may suggest that you attend a grief or depression support group, or see a psychologist for counseling.

If you have debilitating or longstanding symptoms of depression, you may be referred to a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs for short- or long-term use. Some psychiatrists may also prescribe them for people without depression, to assist with symptoms of grief. Others believe that mourning is a normal life process and should be allowed to take its course unaided. In addition, drugs used to treat depression can cause side effects, which may be more pronounced in non-depressives. These side effects may include a reduction in the ability to feel and express emotion, which can stunt or prolong the grieving process. If your doctor recommends these medications, or you feel you may want to try them, be sure to discuss and research their impact thoroughly.

Patients with severe or treatment-resistant depression also have the option of TMS therapy, a non-invasive outpatient treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate brain receptors and relieve major depression. Approved by the FDA in 2008, a course of TMS typically includes three to five sessions lasting 30-60 minutes. Studies find TMS to be twice as effective as antidepressants, with far fewer side effects.

Whether you’re mourning or feel that your grief may have triggered depression, make sure you get the proper diagnosis and the assistance you need to support yourself during the holidays and beyond.