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How to cope with grief this holiday season

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, as grief is an ever-changing beast, but I have found that there are certain things that you can do to alleviate the pain during the holiday season.

Gianna DeMedio and her father in an undated family photo.
Gianna DeMedio and her father in an undated family photo.Read moreCourtesy of Gianna DeMedio (custom credit) / Courtesy of Gianna DeMedio

My fiancé and I have a Saturday morning routine: spin class followed by brunch.

We split the breakfast quesadilla and a short stack of pancakes every time. We talk about our week, our upcoming wedding, our plans for the weekend, and our plans for the future.

But two weeks ago it was different. The restaurant was decked out in holiday cheer. Christmas tunes played through the speakers and friends and families exchanged holiday gifts a few tables away.

Our orders changed. We had no appetite. Our moods changed, too. We talked less. What’s there to say?

“We could go to the movies?” No. “We could invite some friends over?” I don’t feel like being around anyone.

We can make it through the week pretending we are fine, pushing through the monotony of life, getting done what we need to do. But it’s in this moment here at brunch, where our constant distractions are stripped away, that we’re simply two people in a crowded restaurant during the holiday season— this is when we can feel it.

After a year and a half of family health problems — heart attacks, panic attacks, cancer, and death — we are simply depressed.

In May 2017 my world shattered when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My grandmother died 10 months later. Then in November of this year, my fiancé’s mom left us too.

Now, we are heading into a holiday season, and worse, a wedding, without any of them.

Throughout this difficult time, I’ve fought to understand the impossible: how can you cope with grief? I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, as grief is an ever-changing beast, but I have found that there are certain things that you can do to alleviate the pain during the holiday season.

Know it is okay to say no. The holidays are filled with a never-ending list of responsibilities and events. When you’re dealing with grief, you are already burning the candle at both ends: one to sustain yourself in everyday activities like work, grocery shopping, caring for your family; the other to manage the sadness, anger, anxiety you feel over the loss of your loved one. There is VERY little wick left to burn for anything else, including that office holiday party that you really don’t want to go to. Give yourself the allowance to say no to any activities that you just don’t feel up for. Even holiday shopping can wait another day.

Honor the memories with new traditions. Holidays are a time that are deeply rooted in cultural and family traditions. When someone close to you dies, that tradition can be destroyed or feel like torture to experience without them. Part of healing from grief is figuring out a way to cope with the new normal, and creating new traditions that still honor your loved one are a great way to start. The tradition may not be the same, but incorporating their memory into something new will help their spirit live on.

Carve time out to drown in emotion. There is no way around it: the holidays are an emotional time. When I’ve tried to suppress the emotions, I’ve found they come out at very inopportune times… like when the coffee shop is sold out of my favorite pastry. The barista has nothing to do with my father’s death, but my brain saw no difference because I didn’t give it the proper time to process what I was feeling. My hysterical breakdown in the coffee shop could have been avoided if I had allowed myself to recognize the uncomfortable feelings I had, acknowledge them, and release them.

Focus on what you do have. When you experience a significant loss, it becomes an incredibly large elephant in a very tiny room. It’s hard to see anything else. That becomes heightened during the holidays when it’s hard to ignore others enjoying the time with the person in their lives that you may no longer have. Instead of focusing on what is missing from your life, take time to appreciate what you do have. It can be difficult, but it will be cathartic to step back from grief for a minute to evaluate the people, things, and experiences that make your life meaningful.

Flip the script. In the ongoing journey of grief, surviving a holiday season is another milestone that you have overcome. Remind yourself that no matter how crippling a holiday might be, you are a stronger, better person for having gone through it.

Gianna DeMedio is a media relations professional for Jefferson Health who lives in Center City Philadelphia. She founded a blog called So Sorry For Your Loss where she shares how she’s coped with the loss of her father, and stories from others who are grieving.