The holiday season is a time for joy and love as we gather with family and friends. But for some, the approaching celebrations and traditions can be a painful reminder of those who are no longer with us.
Washington DC VA Medical Center Chaplain Service understands that coping with grief during the holiday season can be a difficult process for Veterans and families of Veterans who have lost a loved one in the past few years. To help them navigate grief in a healthy way, Washington DC VA Medical Center Mental Health Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Cindy Wallace, facilitates grief support groups and provides community education.
“The first thing to understand is that it’s ok for things to be different,” said Wallace. “The family get togethers, the decorations and celebrations, they don’t have to be the same as when your loved one was here. It’s important to make peace with that and to establish boundaries for yourself going into these difficult seasons.”
Wallace encourages those coping with grief to manage expectations of family and friends by communicating honestly about their feelings and what they are capable of handling. She recommends asking loved ones to stop by their home or agree to meet for coffee if parties feel like too much to handle.
“You don’t have to say no to parties, but if you aren’t feeling up to it, set boundaries. Agree to stop by for a few minutes and that way, if you arrive and are having a good time, you can always stay longer. But be truthful with family and friends so they know how to support you,” said Wallace.
Traditions that are associated with lost loved ones can also magnify grief during the holiday season. Wallace encourages finding ways to incorporate the loss into old traditions, to keep their memory present.
“Traditions can be therapeutic as long as you aren’t participating in a way that denies the loss. Find a way to honor the relationship you had instead. Make their favorite dish to share with others and talk about it. Ask loved ones to share their memories with that person or put up their picture. It’s a healthy way to remember and keep their memory present in your holiday,” she said.
Grief does not have a timeline, and research shows that the initial stages can persist for the first few years after the loss of a loved one, especially if that loss was unexpected or traumatic. In addition to sadness, grief can cause mental and physical symptoms like fatigue, changes in appetite, struggles sleeping, or sleeping too much, and an inability to concentrate. In some cases, it can lead to panic attacks, nausea, depression and thoughts of suicide. Wallace said its vital to take care of your physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual health when grieving, and to ask for help when needed.
“Thoughts can go from sadness to guilt to depression very quickly, especially during the holidays when everything around you is positive and joyful. You might feel out of place. If that is making you feel lonely and isolated in a room full of people, or if you begin to have thoughts of not wanting to be here anymore, it is vital to reach out for help,” she said.
Wallace recommends asking yourself the following questions when dealing with grief:
- Are you able to get up and take care of yourself?
- Are you able to shower, wash your hair, brush your teeth and eat?
- Are you able to go to work and accomplish your tasks?
- Are you staying in touch with loved ones or are you isolating yourself?
If you are struggling to do any of the above tasks, Wallace recommends reaching out for support. The Washington DC VA Medical Center offers monthly grief support groups, confidential chaplain care and mental health counseling to Veterans struggling to cope with a loss. Beginning in January, a monthly support group for families who have lost a Veteran will also be available. Veterans can reach out to the chaplain team anytime for support at 202-745-8000, ext. 56278.
“We are here to talk or listen. We can connect you with our groups, or find you resources closer to home,” said Wallace. “Give yourself permission to grieve, but don’t let the grief isolate you from the world. No matter what you are feeling, you are not alone.”
Although it may feel difficult, incorporating the loss of your loved one into your celebrations this year may help you feel better and eliminate some grief caused by the holidays.
“They are always going to be present in your life, nothing can take that away,” said Wallace. “Find ways to honor the relationship you shared with them. Although they are no longer here with you, when you embrace those memories, you may find you begin to feel better.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988, then press 1. You can also send a text to 838255 or chat online here: Home (veteranscrisisline.net)