"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens book surrounded by brown pinecones, white and gold ornament stars, and a white candle with pine needles
Handling the Holidays, Part 3-Holiday Grief Series, My Forever Son

“Taking Care of Yourself this Holiday Season”

(The suggestions below for moving through the holidays after suicide loss can be found in their entirety at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.)

by Doreen Marshall

When we think about the holiday season, many of us connect to traditions which ground us in our histories, our feelings toward one another, and our hope for a new year. This year, due to the pandemic, the holiday season will be different for many of us. For many of us, there will be loved ones missing, along with accompanying sadness. Many are also experiencing financial stressors or other hardships. Some are feeling sheer exhaustion from the many changes we have had to navigate just to “get through.”  You may even wish to ignore that there is a holiday season this year.

Whatever your holiday season brings, we hope these tips help you navigate it in whatever way you need to stay healthy and well.

  1. There’s no right or wrong way to spend the holidays. We may be feeling some guilt about not wanting or being able to carry out our usual traditions. Try to free yourself from judgment (whether it’s your own or the voices of others) this holiday season. It’s okay to say, “I won’t be doing that this year.”. You don’t have to decide whether you will ever do that again for the holidays; you just need to get through this year. You may feel differently (and decide differently) next year.
  2. Have a self-care plan for the holidays that prioritizes your mental health and your overall wellness. Get enough rest, drink more water, take a daily walk or stretch. Take medications as prescribed, and keep health and therapy appointments. Set small daily goals (e.g. reading five pages, sending a friend a text to check in, preparing a healthy meal) that give you a sense of accomplishment without feeling too burdensome. Identify someone you can call when you are feeling down, and put helpline numbers in your phone. (See below.) Limit intake of news, social media, substances or any other consumption that leaves you feeling more drained than empowered. Tell others about your self-care plan so they can help support it. If you find yourself having difficulty coping, it is likely an indicator that it is time to reach out to a professional (such as a mental health professional) for more support.
  3. Caring for your mental health may look different this holiday season. Maybe part of caring for your mental health is about what you don’t do this holiday season. One aspect of taking care of your mental health involves proactively reducing stressors when you are able: both those in the present, and those you may see coming. We have all succumbed to the pressure of buying gifts that we can’t afford, only to face looming bills in January as a result. Perhaps this is the year to try an alternate tradition that does not involve spending. Write someone a note telling them what they mean to you, for example, and let them know you aren’t exchanging gifts this year. Caring for your mental health is also about authentically letting people know what they can do to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, even if it means departing from usual traditions or skipping them this year. Enlist those around you to help carry out the traditions you want to keep, such as asking others to help with meal preparation or plans.
  4. Set healthy boundaries to protect your mental well-being. You may have something you are dreading this holiday season. Perhaps you feel obligated to spend time with certain individuals, knowing that you will leave those interactions feeling worse. The only true obligation you have is to take care of yourself this holiday season. While we can’t control the actions of others, we can limit our exposure to interactions (people and places) that leave us feeling worse about the days ahead.  Setting healthy boundaries is an act of self-love, and you deserve that this holiday season. If you are estranged from family, stay connected to your “family of choice” instead – those who support you and allow you to express yourself authentically.
  5. It’s okay to feel both love and loss over the holidays. A gift you can give yourself this year is allowing emotional space for your feelings, whatever they may be. You can appreciate what you have this holiday, while also feeling deeply saddened by what has been lost. You can experience love toward those not present while missing their presence terribly. You can feel both fearful and hopeful. There is room for all of your feelings, and they don’t cancel each other out when you allow yourself to experience all of them. Journal, talking with a trusted friend, and engaging support groups or therapy are all things you can do to help you express those feelings.
  6. It’s okay to not be okay this holiday season. All your feelings this season are valid, including those that are difficult or unexpected. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes. A good goal this season is not to try to feel happy throughout, but to allow your authentic feelings to surface and get support when needed to cope with them.  Also remember that feelings can change over time, especially in their intensity. You will find that in sharing your feelings, you are not alone. The holidays are an excellent time to explore joining a support group (many are online/virtual these days) or start therapy to help process those feelings

Doreen Marshall, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

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Holiday Grief Series-Handling the Holidays After Suicide Loss

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