Grief and the Holidays: The Unique Challenges of COVID-19

Dec 10, 2020

Debbie Vallandingham, LMSW-ACSW, Bereavement Manager

This year, the holidays will be a little different.

We grieve all year long, but there is something that is different at the holidays. This is a time that is filled with memories of celebrations of old. The holidays are also known for gratitude, charity, and giving to others. Yet, those who are grieving often feel overwhelmed by memories. They feel the pain of loss and often feel guilty for dwelling on their emotions. Those grieving can find themselves exhausted trying to fill the demands of cleaning, shopping and decorating.  In grief at this time of year, we are at risk of being lured into excess, whether it’s eating too many cookies or feeling tired after one too many drinks.

And in 2020, the game has changed.  COVID-19 has altered the way we will approach the holidays.  What used to be trips to visit family may now be phone calls or Zoom video conferencing.

Accept the reality of grief during a COVID Holiday

Everyone grieves differently.

Whatever you think “normal” is – throw that out of your mind. There is no such thing as normal. You will grieve how you grieve and whatever that is, that’s right for you.

Acknowledge that the holidays are going to be difficult.

The holidays are always difficult.  This year, especially so. That’s why you need to consider making a plan to help take away those stresses and anxieties.

COVID-19 will make the holidays different.

It’s hard to turn on the evening news and not hear about the changing reality under COVID-19.  Some medical professionals are suggesting that the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s will pose a great risk, leading to more isolation during that normally festive season.  This is especially true for anyone who may have an increased risk of a severe outcome from COVID-19, including those with chronic health conditions like heart disease or diabetes.

In preparation for these times, many families are considering ways to keep in touch, whether by telephone, video calls, or even by creating a “bubble” where everyone stays quarantined to make sure everyone visiting in person can do so safely.

Have a grief plan for the Holidays

Set realistic expectations.

Don’t over-do it. You don’t have to be the same person this year. Give yourself permission to change your practices.

Start planning now.

It’s never too soon to start planning.  Add your voice to the conversation to make sure your opinion on COVID-19 safety measures are heard and understood.

Decide on traditions.

Decide what you are doing this year including whether to keep old traditions or adding new ones. It’s OK to change things and make new traditions. You are grieving and it will not be the same. It may be a great time to start a new tradition. But be mindful, abandoning all of the holidays completely, in light of the pandemic, may not be the best option.

You don’t have to pretend that nothing happened, but you may want to allow the family to reach out as you show them on Zoom how you chose to decorate. Perhaps you would normally visit relatives you haven’t seen in several years but now can’t.  You could spend some time on the phone with them. Or you could go to a virtual holiday event that you wouldn’t usually do. Make a plan and be open to the experience.

Prepare for smaller, socially distanced gatherings.

Smaller gatherings may rule the day!  Although the safest holiday gatherings may be virtual and remote, holding very small celebrations where the rest of the family is gathered by technology can be a potential option to keep families together.

Be patient; remember that you can enjoy the holidays again.

Will it be the same? No, it’s never going to be the same. But it can be good. You can enjoy the holidays. It’s going to take time and you’re going through a long healing process. Take joy in small things and you will gradually enjoy more parts of the holiday.

Make time for self-care

Get rest and take care of yourself.

Your body is going through some of the greatest stress of your life. The stress of grief is so great that you may find yourself immune compromised and at a higher risk for colds and the flu.

Try to incorporate exercise.

Exercise has the benefit of being a good and natural defense to stress. Scientific studies show that getting exercise produces endorphins, the chemical in the brain that acts as a painkiller and promotes the ability to sleep.

If you need it, ask your family and friends for help.

Don’t hesitate to call friends and family. People want to help but aren’t sure what to do. They don’t know how to help you unless you ask. You have to ask for what you want.

Don’t forget to seek the help of professionals if you feel you need extra support.

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to talk with a counselor. If you feel overwhelmed, seek professional help.

This holiday will be one that we talk about for years to come.  It may be a holiday without friends and family gathered in the same place, or the gatherings may be smaller than normal.  Regardless of how it looks, we need to make sure we have a plan as we move forward this season.

Angela Hospice’s Bereavement Team

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things you can go through. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, or when you just need someone to talk openly with, our Bereavement Team is here to help. Our social workers can provide that listening ear, and help you to understand and cope with the range of emotions that grief can bring.

Our free programs for Community Members include:

One-on-one counseling: Grief support, education, and counseling are offered to assist in coping with the death of a loved one. While feelings of grief are normal, handling them can be difficult and painful. Talking about what you are going through can help. Call 734.779.6690 to schedule an appointment.

Grief Support Groups: Virtual support groups allow individuals the opportunity to learn about the grief process while benefiting from talking with or hearing from others who are facing a similar journey.

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