The winter holidays generally bring cheer and joy. They invite images of families gathered in warm, cozy spaces. Visions of logs burning in the fireplace, steaming cups of hot cocoa and snow falling softly outside the window tickle the minds of many. However, for some, the holidays are not, as the song says, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, they can be downright bad.
People who have experienced trauma around the holidays may find the season to be a difficult time because of their memories of those traumatic events. The word trauma means “wound” in the Greek language. Every time the anniversary of a traumatic event rolls around, that wound is often opened again. That makes this time of year painful for those who link it to trauma.
Likewise, the holidays may be difficult for those who are grieving a loss. Maybe it’s due to separation instead of death, but a member of that cozy family pictured above might be absent. Instead of feeling whole with everyone gathered, there is a hole where that loved one had been.
In many ways, we all are experiencing grief this holiday season. After the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many types of losses happened in addition to deaths. People lost jobs, housing and the opportunity to travel. Children lost the end of the school year and had limits on summer vacation. Our daily patterns were thrown off by restrictions and closures. As a result, many of us are experiencing anger, depression or despair.
How do we deal with these darker emotions during a time that is usually meant to be bright and cheery?
Consider talking about your emotions with someone who feels safe. Sharing how you are feeling can be like dumping a heavy load of bricks out of a wheelbarrow. It can release some of the burden you carry when you give words to your thoughts.
Find a special act you can do to acknowledge your loss. Sometimes grief can feel lighter if you have some sense of closure. Doing something like lighting a special candle in honor of a loved one who has died or dropping a pebble into water for each loss you’ve experienced can symbolize letting go.
Writing a letter can also be helpful. If you are grieving a death, you could write a letter to the person who has died. If you connect the holidays with a trauma, you could write a letter to a person who harmed you or to God or the Universe expressing your pain. These are letters you do not send. Instead, you might just tuck them away in a journal or burn them safely. The act of writing can be a way of releasing difficult emotions if talking is hard.
Lastly, consider creating new traditions for the holidays. This allows you to reshape the time of year into something different and possibly less painful. It also gives you encouragement that you can continue on through difficult times.
If you are not grieving, please remember that there may be some around you who are hurting. It is helpful to give space for those persons to be sad or mad, and to not force them to try to cheer up or to participate. The greatest gift you might be able to give this year is to just sit quietly with someone who is crying or to affirm their pain. That will show them that you care.
Wes Sedlacek is the manager of chaplain services at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital and Samaritan Albany General Hospital. In addition to supporting those in the hospital, he also provides community education and assistance with advanced medical planning.
If you are interested in joining a virtual grief support group, Samaritan Evergreen Hospice invites all adults who have experienced the death of a loved one, whether it occurred under hospice care or not. The loss does not have to be recent and sessions are led by a trained facilitator. For more information or to register, call 541-812-4680.