Yumiko Sato Music Therapy

Journey Into Wholeness

Coping with grief during the holiday

Photo by Bubamara

Photo by Bubamara

The holiday season can be stressful for everyone, especially for those who are grieving.   Holidays come with so much expectations, and you’re supposed to be joyous, grateful, and celebratory.  The popular Christmas song says it is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but is it the case for everyone?

If your loved one is very ill, you may have no energy to plan for the holiday or struggle to “celebrate” under the circumstances.  You’re experiencing what’s called anticipatory grief, a common and normal reaction when facing an impending death of a loved one.  For you the holiday season can be overwhelming.

Similarly, if you’ve lost your loved one sometime this year, the first holiday without him or her can be heartbreaking and even scary.

The year my brother died suddenly was one of the most stressful years of my life.  And for my parents losing their son was unbearable.  But at least we didn’t have to worry about celebrating New Year, the biggest holiday in Japan.

Japanese don’t celebrate New Year after a family member dies.  One of the Japanese customs during the holiday is to send nengajo (New Year’s day postcards), but in the year we had death in our family we send a different type of card called mochu hagaki.

Mochu means a mourning period.  The purpose of mochu hagaki (mochu postcards) is to let families and friends know that you’re not celebrating New Year because you’re in mourning.  In this way people will know, if not already, that your family member died, and that you are not able to participate in the New Year celebrations.  This custom takes the pressure to celebrate the holiday off of the bereaved.

Unfortunately in the West there seems to be an expectation for the bereaved to celebrate holidays as usual.  In fact they’re expected to get back to “normal” soon after their loved ones die.  Once the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have been sent, they’re supposed to go back to their normal lives only to find that nothing is ever going to be normal again.

When I was working at hospice in America, bereaved people often said, “I wish I could go to sleep on the day before Thanksgiving and wake up in January.”  Have you ever felt that way before?

The other day I came across an article called “Dealing with Grief during the Holiday.”  It’s useful not only for the bereaved but also for someone whose family member or friend is grieving.  Here are some tips from the article:

Only do what feels right — don’t feel obligated to do what you don’t want to do.

Accept your feelings — whatever they might be — everyone takes his or her own path in grief and mourning.

Call on your family and friends to ask for support — take your friend to events and create an “escape plan” together in case you need to leave the event early.

Seek a professional help from a therapist and a support group — many hospices have these services available.  Check with your local hospice.

Focus on the kids — understand that children may be grieving and needing support as well.

Plan ahead — anticipation may be worse than the actual event.  It can be helpful to plan comforting activities in the weeks approaching a holiday so that you have something to look forward to.

Scale back — don’t feel you have to go to every holiday event and decorate the house as you have done in the past.  It’s okay to scale back.

Give — giving can be a source of healing during the time of loss.

Acknowledge those who have died — it can be helpful to create a ritual in your loved one’s memory.

Do something different — the holiday will not be the same again.  Going to different locations and/or planning new activities during the holiday may help.

Skip it — give yourself a permission to skip the holiday. You may want to plan alternative activities that provide you comfort.

If you’re grieving, what are you doing to get through the holiday?   For those of you who have been there before, what worked for you in the past?

13 comments on “Coping with grief during the holiday

  1. Teal Ashes
    November 28, 2013

    I’m so sorry about your brother’s death.

    I have heard many other widows and widowers express the same wish that they could sleep through the holiday season. The mochu hagaki sounds like a tradition of compassion and sensitivity that acknowledges how life-altering the death of a loved one is to the survivors. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Yumi
      December 2, 2013

      Thank you for your comment. You’re right that the death of a loved one is a life-altering event. It takes a long time to heal from the grief. I hope your Thanksgiving was restful.

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  4. socialbridge
    December 3, 2013

    Yumi, deepest sympathy on your brother’s death and thanks so much for highlighting the mochu hagaki tradition. It certainly sounds extremely appropriate and something from which many other societies could learn.

    • Yumi
      December 4, 2013

      Thank you. I’m curious about the Irish tradition for mourning. Is there any special instruction for the bereaved according to your custom?

      • socialbridge
        December 4, 2013

        No, not any more. It used to be the tradition that those in mourning wore black for a year after the death of a loved one ~ women in full black attire and I think the men mainly wore black ties. Black is still worn by many of the bereaved to funerals but even that is fading now.
        The other tradition among some Roman Catholics is to have what is called a ‘Month’s Mind,’ in other words a Mass in memory of the person who has died and to which family and friends go. It is like a form of re-union a month after the funeral. And some people have an annual anniversary Mass for years and years after the death. Another tradition, particularly in more rural areas is to place a notice in the local newspaper on the anniversary of the loved one.
        But all in all, there is absolutely no way of knowing who is bereaved and who is not and there is an expectation that people will ‘get back to normal’ quickly (compared to the year’s mourning of 100 years ago.)

      • Yumi
        December 5, 2013

        Thank you so much for sharing this. I find it very interesting how different culture approaches death, illnesses, and mourning. Wearing black for a year is a unique custom. I can see how that may be inconvenient to practice today, but I also see the value of such a tradition. It seems that our lives are moving so much faster than it did before, which is a universal phenomena. Yet, grief still takes time to heal.

  5. Megumi Azekawa
    December 3, 2013

    I am sorry about your brother’s passing… It was hard for me to go through all the “holidays” while my best friend passed away a while back. It was right after I moved to the US and not easy for me to explain the fact that Japanese does not celebrate holidays for a year after somebody close is passed. So, I didn’t let myself grieve over her death until sometime later, so it hit hard for a while. It was particularly hard for me to listen to the songs we used like to listen together (which reminds me to be sensitive for song choices as a music therapist in clinical situations). Later, I had an opportunity to express my feeling through writing a poem and acknowledge her passing, which greatly helped me. It is very important to take your own time to heal the sorrow.

    • Yumi
      December 4, 2013

      Thank you so much for sharing. It must have been hard for you to be in the new country when you were going through grief. Yes, “mochu” is difficult to explain to people in America… I’m glad you had an opportunity to express your feelings in a meaningful way and were able to move through the process. I agree that it’s so important to take time to grieve and heal.

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This entry was posted on November 28, 2013 by in Grief & Loss and tagged , , , , .
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