Loss in the Season of Giving
by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.
How hard it is to be bereaved during the winter holiday season. The
demands of the season for cheerfulness, socializing, and giving are
intense even for those who are not in the midst of mourning. How is it
possible to join in the spirit of these holidays? Your emotional reality
is that you are sad, angry, possibly depressed, maybe anxious. Your
social reality is that you've lost someone who is extremely important to
you, possibly the key person in your interpersonal sphere, and
basically, you would rather be alone, or maybe with just one person whom
you trust. In terms of giving, well, metaphorically, you've just given,
i.e. you've just taken one of the biggest losses you've ever
experienced, and you haven't been able to find any sense of joy in the
process. So how to cope, and even find meaning in all of this?
One path to consider, ironically, is the path of giving. Giving is not
the same as loosing. Giving can be an expression of love and gratitude,
an act of assertive acknowledgement of those around us. Giving can bring
fulfillment and help you to remain in touch with yourself. Consider a
way in which you can express your gratitude for the relationship you had
with the person who has died. Is there a way to make a contribution to
one of their favorite charities in their name? Would this involve
making a donation, or possibly including others in some way that would
allow for the sharing of memories and caring? Or is there a group or
person whom you would like to reach out to? There are many opportunities
for sharing with and helping others.
If you have a family, choosing to work together to give to a particular
group may be a good way to help the family through the holiday season,
which is sure to bring with it poignant memories, some painful and some
positive, along with a deep sense of missing the person no longer with
you. Having the family choose a way of giving which reflects upon the
deceased can be particularly meaningful at this time of the year.
Just as giving to others can be meaningful and helpful, giving to
oneself is not only meaningful, but is essential to coping with the
holidays. Start by assessing how much holiday activity you want to be
involved in and identify which activities and traditions you want to do
this year. What you do this year might be different from previous years.
Discuss this with your family too. Determine what would be meaningful
for the family and what might be too painful.
Let others know what you are capable of and not capable of. Don't be
afraid to ask for help or for changes in family traditions that might be
hard to manage this year. Express your gratitude for the gift of support
and responsiveness to your needs, and assure those who are helping you
that their efforts are deeply appreciated.
If your family and friends are not able to offer the support you need,
or are actively not supportive, which does happen quite often, try to be
understanding, but feel free to make plans which better support
yourself. You might want to arrange a special celebration with members
of your support group if you have one, or connect with people at your
place of worship, or simply choose exactly who you want to be part of
your holidays this year.
One family I spoke to when I gave a talk on grief had made plans to go
away on a beautiful vacation during the holidays. They felt that this
would help them consolidate as a family, heal from their pain, and
remove them from too many direct reminders of their loss. They also felt
sure that their father/husband would approve of this idea.
Another family created a new tradition and lit candles in honor of the
family member who died. Others shared fond memories of their missing
family member and passed the tissue box. Some people find it useful to
work during the holidays, possibly giving others a chance to take the
time off. Another person made a gift to the hospice group that helped
her through her husband's death. Another person began a new tradition
for herself of giving a tree trimming party for her friends. This helped
her to avoid too much loneliness through the holidays and gave her an
opportunity to show her gratitude and appreciation for the support of
The winter holidays with their traditions of giving can be understood as
celebrations of light and the survival of the spirit through dark
times. The gifts we give our symbolic of our love, which lights the way
through this dark passage. Through this exchange of love we who remain
here on earth carry on. Understood in this way, giving may be one of
the best and most meaningful ways available to honor the person you have
lost and partake of the holiday season.
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