Dealing with Grief on Special Occasions

April 05, 2020

Dealing with Grief on Special Occasions

For many people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, it can seem like there is nothing worse than the day to day heartache and struggles that accompany grief. Yet, many people find that certain days – such as birthdays, Holidays, or certain anniversaries – can trigger even more emotions and pain.

Reawakened Grief

Special occasions are normally a time for celebration. When you are grieving a loved one, it might feel quite the opposite. You might have mixed feelings of joy and sadness, or you might be angry. Perhaps you feel like there is no way you can attend the family get-together, and that you need to stay home. Whatever you may be feeling, know that having grief reawakened at certain times – expected or unexpected – is normal. You should also know that there are ways to prepare and handle any day that comes your way.

  • Pay Attention – Your emotions and routines can change when you are gearing up for a holiday, special event, or anniversary. This is normal. You might notice:
    • Anger: including irritability, increased fights with others, or feeling mad all the time.
    • Anxiety: feeling on edge or worried that something else bad is going to happen or that you will cause a scene if you express your emotions
    • Depression: increased sadness, isolating yourself, and not attending your usual functions.
    • Guilt: questioning everything or blaming yourself.
    • Other changes in eating, sleeping, or energy levels.
  • Accept the Stages – Grief is a complex experience and does not have a direct course. Your emotions can and will vary. It is helpful to remind yourself of this, and to be flexible enough to adjust your expectations depending on what you are capable of on that day. As you pay attention to yourself, you will be able to better conserve and use your time and energy when you are able. This can help you to commit to your values and carry out the necessary tasks. For example, perhaps you cannot bake the three usual desserts that you bring to a family get-together, but you know you can at least do one. Do the one. Know that you have what it takes to both handle your emotions and engage with your commitments.
  • Embrace the Good Days – It is just as important to accept when you are having a good day as it is to be kind to yourself when you are having a bad day. You can make the most of the good days by prepping for your week or the upcoming holiday, or doing any activity that you might not normally have energy for. Some people report thoughts like “I should not be enjoying myself” or “If I am not missing them, I am forgetting them.” These thoughts might appear true, but they are not. You are allowed to continue living and enjoying life even as you grieve, and your thoughts and feelings will undoubtedly change as time passes. This does not mean that the person who died means less to you.  
  • Prepare and Self-care – If you know a certain event is coming up that is going to have a strong influence on you, take the time to utilize an action plan. Do one or two activities a day that you know build you up. Examples could include taking a hot bath, going for a walk, talking to a friend on the phone, journaling, or engaging in a hobby. By investing energy into productive habits, you can help your body and mind cope with any added stress in a more efficient way. Also, expecting the symptoms of grief to show up will help you to not be caught off guard. If you know you have multiple obligations around the anniversary of the death, for example, you can try to re-schedule some of them instead of putting undue pressure on yourself at a time that you know will be challenging.
  • Start a New Tradition – If certain days affect you more than others, you can use them to help you honor the person’s memory. Start a journal of letters written to the person who died. Donate something in their name as an annual positive reminder. Do a walk or attend a fundraiser for a specific cause that was important to your loved one. You may even consider having a memorial event for the person where you can invite others to share memories together.
  • Ask for Help – Everyone needs help sometimes, and especially while grieving. While it may seem difficult, reach out to those who have been helpful and supportive to you. This might include family or friends, a support group, or a counselor or religious leader. If you start to have thoughts about suicide, you can contact a crisis helpline such as 1-800-273-TALK/1-800-273-8255 or call 911. Help is available.

Unexpected Reminders

Sometimes a reminder of a deceased loved one can appear out of nowhere: a certain smell, song, or joke that you hear can be enough to trigger the longing and seem to take you back in time. While it might seem that these instances are a sign of weakness or a setback in your grief journey, these reminders are inevitable. Rather than judge them or look down on yourself, allow yourself to notice what is happening. Root yourself in the present moment, take some deep breaths, and ask yourself:

  • What am I noticing?
  • What am I feeling?
  • Where am I?
  • Who am I with?
  • What can I do right now to honor myself and the memory of my loved one?

By paying attention to the present moment, you allow yourself to be mindful of the sensation. This helps you to slow down and orient yourself. It can also help you to make decisions that are helpful. The more you allow yourself to feel what is going on, the sooner it can pass since you are not ignoring, suppressing, or pushing it away.


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