LOSS IN THE SEASON OF GIVING
by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.
How hard it is to be bereaved during the winter holiday season. Thedemands of the season for cheerfulness, socializing, and giving areintense even for those who are not in the midst of mourning. How is itpossible to join in the spirit of these holidays? Your emotional realityis that you are sad, angry, possibly depressed, maybe anxious. Yoursocial reality is that you've lost someone who is extremely important toyou, possibly the key person in your interpersonal sphere, andbasically, you would rather be alone, or maybe with just one person whomyou trust. In terms of giving, well, metaphorically, you've just given,i.e. you've just taken one of the biggest losses you've everexperienced, 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 notthe same as losing. Giving can be an expression of love and gratitude,an act of assertive acknowledgement of those around us. Giving can bringfulfillment and help you to remain in touch with yourself. Consider away in which you can express your gratitude for the relationship you hadwith the person who has died. Is there a way to make a contribution toone of their favorite charities in their name? Would this involvemaking a donation, or possibly including others in some way that wouldallow for the sharing of memories and caring? Or is there a group orperson whom you would like to reach out to? There are many opportunitiesfor sharing with and helping others.
If you have a family, choosing to work together to give to a particulargroup 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 somepositive, along with a deep sense of missing the person no longer withyou. Having the family choose a way of giving which reflects upon thedeceased 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 theholidays. Start by assessing how much holiday activity you want to beinvolved in and identify which activities and traditions you want to dothis year. What you do this year might be different from previous years.Discuss this with your family too. Determine what would be meaningfulfor the family and what might be too painful.
Let others know what you are capable of and not capable of. Don't beafraid to ask for help or for changes in family traditions that might behard to manage this year. Express your gratitude for the gift of supportand responsiveness to your needs, and assure those who are helping youthat 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 beunderstanding, but feel free to make plans which better support
yourself. You might want to arrange a special celebration with membersof your support group if you have one, or connect with people at yourplace of worship, or simply choose exactly who you want to be part ofyour holidays this year.
One family I spoke to when I gave a talk on grief had made plans to goaway on a beautiful vacation during the holidays. They felt that thiswould help them consolidate as a family, heal from their pain, andremove them from too many direct reminders of their loss. They also feltsure 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 missingfamily member and passed the tissue box. Some people find it useful towork during the holidays, possibly giving others a chance to take thetime off. Another person made a gift to the hospice group that helpedher through her husband's death. Another person began a new traditionfor herself of giving a tree trimming party for her friends. This helpedher to avoid too much loneliness through the holidays and gave her an opportunity to show her gratitude and appreciation for the support of her friends.
The winter holidays with their traditions of giving can be understood ascelebrations of light and the survival of the spirit through darktimes. The gifts we give are symbolic of our love, which lights the waythrough this dark passage. Through this exchange of love we who remainhere on earth carry on. Understood in this way, giving may be one ofthe best and most meaningful ways available to honor the person you havelost and partake of the holiday season.
Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Biddeford, Maine. She has a specialty in neuropsychology and has published in the field of psychology. In her work, she addresses the needs of individuals who are grieving and also focuses on helping widows in developing countries where tradition has denied them basic human rights. You can reach her by fax at: (207) 282-5895.