Holiday Series Part One: Coping with Grief

By Maisha Ahmed

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NY Project Hope is a crisis counseling program that provides support and resources to help people cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic

There is always an event that seems to split our lives into two parts: before that event occurred and after that event occurred. Last year, all of us simultaneously had our lives completely torn apart with the occurrence of covid-19 and the continuous changes that it brought to us. Suddenly we have what we deemed to be “old” normal,which transpired pre-covid era, and the new normal, which is the present or post-covid era. After a very tumultuous year of lockdowns, social distancing, mask mandates, and most importantly, the introduction of vaccines, we have settled down a bit.

Now we are heading towards the most anticipated time of the year: the holiday seasons! From Thanksgiving to Hanukkah as well as Christmas and New Year, it is a time of relaxation, having fun with our family and loved ones, and just generally taking a little break from our hectic schedules and enjoying ourselves. Project Hope decided to make a holiday series to uplift your spirits, to introduce ways to recuperate and stay healthy, as well tackle difficult issues that might arise during these particular times.

Different Types of Losses

Our holiday series will start off with a rather serious and uncomfortable topic: coping with losses during the holidays. I know it might be easier to focus on something more positive but my hope is that by the end of this article, it will leave a rather warm and comforting feeling. As much as we want to avoid it, enduring loss and grieving is a normal part of life. However, with the onset of covid-19, the losses and grieving processes have accelerated for the general popular and comes in different forms:

  • Loss of normalcy: Grief doesn’t always pertain to the act of losing a loved one; rather, as shown through the wake of the pandemic, grief can also be associated with the sense of losing normalcy. As stated before, normalcy can be defined a bit differently in post-covid era. With the onset of the pandemic, we were introduced to foreign concepts such as mask mandates as well as strict social distancing rules. In the same gist, we faced tremendous changes and losses to our traditional way of life such as not being able to socially connect, the sudden fear of even taking a five-minute walk to the grocery store, or missing milestones such as prom and graduation. In addition, the holidays were supposed to be a time we look forward to but since the pandemic, it turned into a period of time where we feared for the safety of our loved ones. Some of us skipped out on holiday events to protect our family members while others were simply not in the mood to celebrate because of everything that was and still is going on all around us.
  • Loss of control: Within a short and quick time span, many of us seemed to spiral out of control. There is no doubt that social isolation dampened our mental health and a lot of us felt a spike in anxiety and depression. I also forgot how to socialize in some ways and when the holidays came around, I didn’t want to be around people because I got so used to being alone. I felt like I was on a downward spiral and the festivities were just not as enjoyable.
  • Loss of a loved one: I think I wrote and rewrote this article so far about five times by the time I have reached this bullet point. I wasn’t sure how to start it off but maybe it would be helpful to share a personal story. I lost my father last year during the height of the pandemic to stage four lung cancer. I think the day my father passed away is also the day time stopped for me. I miss him so much every single day but with the upcoming holidays and special events, the feelings intensifies and the loneliness becomes more in depth. Whether it’s holidays such as Father’s Day or the upcoming Thanksgiving, whenever I am sitting down to eat with my family, the chair that my father would always sit in would look more empty than usual. His loud and jolly laughter, the way his eyes would light up when my mother would bring in his favorite dishes for Thanksgiving, his excitement at sharing stories with his friends is something that always lingers all around me. He was the first person I would run to for a hug when the clock turned midnight and the new year began and now, I can barely enter his room for longer than 2-3 minutes. I can’t help but envy my friends who are happily talking about spending Christmas with their parents and I know it’s unfair to have that kind of envy but I’m still not ready to face that loneliness. This isn’t to make it about my own loss but I want to give a huge hug to everyone who is missing their loved one a little extra during these moments where spending time with family and loved ones are especially emphasized. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel like the world is unfair, it’s okay to feel that hurt and pain. It’s okay to not want to celebrate, it’s okay to skip out on a thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, it’s okay to feel whatever emotion you are feeling at the moment. Your way of grieving is perfectly okay. There is a saying I’d like to end this with: “As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive. In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life”

The 4 C’s of Coping with Grief During the Holidays

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Now comes the hardest part. How do we cope with grief especially during moments where we are expected to be jolly and positive? How do we deal with the moments of missing someone or something when holidays are known to represent time we spend with our loved ones? What if we don’t have anyone else to celebrate with? How do we cope with everything? First of all, I’d like to reassure you that it’s okay not to be okay and you don’t have to act positive all the time. Here are some ways to navigate through grief during the holidays:

  • Creating a second plan-It’s always good to have another option on hand in case you’re not feeling the first one. For example: let’s say you get invited to a family or friend dinner but it makes you feel more lonely or makes you miss your loved one and you find yourself not really enjoying it as much. Perhaps you could leave early and watch a movie you like or whatever suits your mood at that time.
  • Canceling the holiday-I have done this last year, a few months after my father passed away. I decided not to celebrate Thanksgiving or my graduation; instead, I went to the cemetery and spent some time with him. It’s perfectly okay to “cancel” a holiday if you’re not in the mood for it. After all, holidays will always stick around and you can even choose to “reschedule” to another date to celebrate it. For others, celebrating holidays is a symbol of continuing on with life and some form of normalcy. In some sense, it can be a framework for a support system as well.
  • Celebrating the holiday in a new way- There is no right or wrong way when it comes to handling grief during the holidays. You have the right to choose how to celebrate it and who to celebrate it with. You can also choose how to recognize and acknowledge your loss whether it’s through lighting a candle, creating a ritual, or even spending the holiday just celebrating the life of your loved one.
  • Communicating-Everyone has a different way of enduring grief but communicating can really ease some of the pain. Before the start of a holiday or a special event or even during those moments when my grief seems out of this world, I find some comfort in talking with my mother and brother. It helps to have others who can relate as well as it’s comforting just sharing memories together. Communicating will lead to a strong support system as well as build resilience, which we will actually address in our next blog.

I hope that somehow this article can provide a bit of comfort to those who are missing a loved one or grieving during some of the most special yet lonely times of the year.

As always, Project Hope is also here to help you! Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to someone you don’t know! Want to know more about how we can help? Give us a call at 845-762-2275. Talking to us is always free, anonymous, and confidential.

Maisha Ahmed is a crisis counselor from Independent Living, Inc. working on with the NY Project Hope program. 

Further Reading and References: