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Caregiver Support: Handling Stress and Grief During the Holidays

Caregiver Support: Handling Stress and Grief During the Holidays

Caregiver support may be easily overlooked during the holidays, but it is essential for those who are or have been spending many hours caregiving during the year. If this is the first holiday season the family will spend without Mom or Dad, it may stir a mix of emotions. We may feel sad that they are not around to enjoy the celebration or get to know their young grandchildren. We may feel relieved to be free from the daily burden of caregiving and the anxiety of knowing that a crisis could ensue at any moment. We may feel guilt or thoughts about what we “could have” or “should have” done. We may feel anger about things our deceased relative said or did during their living years, especially if they did not show love for us.

Complex emotions are difficult to process and understand, especially when your life situations are suddenly different. When we are accustomed to spending the majority of our waking hours (and even our dreamwork) managing caregiving, it can feel surreal when that comes to an abrupt end. We may notice that the relief carries with it a feeling of dissonance. We may find that our emotions often do not make sense. These are signals calling for caregiver support.

Grief Bursts and Other Unfamiliar Emotions

I recently attended a grief support group after a client of mine passed away. I went to the group because it is important to me to recall my own feelings and remain aware of what grieving families feel. During the session, one fellow shared that he had experienced an overwhelming rush of sadness at the grocery store around Thanksgiving. He was seized with memories of traditions and food prepared by folks who have now passed. This phenomenon is known as a “grief burst” or a “grief ambush,” and it is common during the holidays.

Grief symptoms often include having a “short fuse,” difficulty sleeping, a loss of appetite despite the holiday feasts, and general apathy toward life. Outings and activities once enjoyable may no longer carry the same meaning. We may find it difficult to focus or concentrate on tasks like reading. We may feel fatigued. We may wish to be alone and avoid social activities, which may evoke further guilt.

The Role of Kindness in Caregiver Support

In my experience, the first step in coming to terms with grief is learning to view it differently. A period of healing is needed, and an essential aspect of recovery is kindness. Kindness is not a formula, a checklist or a mechanical process. No one can experience kindness until they are ready to receive it. Real kindness begins with connection.

When we lose someone, we’re all-consumed by grief. For many, things begin to change for the better when a friend, a member of the clergy, a professional or a neighbor shows a simple act of kindness. That is when the first ray of hope appears. That is the very kindness I want to display in my life’s work.

I have come to believe that support groups allow people to experience the kind of connection that opens the way for kindness and allows healing to move forward. In the particular group I attended, I heard a few phrases that allowed me to understand how to normalize stress and grief during the holidays. This is no easy feat, but these may prove useful if your family has recently lost a loved one.

  • Acknowledge that things are different. The facilitator told us to begin by “acknowledging that things are different,” just for this one holiday season only. Simply acknowledge that this one’s different. Some families try to celebrate in the usual way, remaining in denial as if nothing had happened. Other families may forgo the festivities altogether. Usually, there is a healthy middle ground: celebrating the holidays in a way that fully honors the loss.
  • Pain is more intense this time of year. In the group, everyone seemed to agree that they felt a certain pressure to feel joy. Well, many didn’t feel that joy. Many wondered how they might feel joy this year—or ever again. When pain intensifies, it is important to remember that this is normal and to be expected. It is not a sign that something is wrong.
  • It’s when we come together that we notice who is missing. This one really got to me. It helped me to make some sense of my own family dynamics. “It’s when we come together that we notice who is missing.” Ouch. I think my sister lives somewhere in that statement. (When I allow myself to think about it, so do I.) We may really feel the absence of a loved one, especially if they once played a central role during holiday festivities.
  • We can choose what to honor and what we wish to carry on. The group touched upon ways to honor those who were no longer with us. We talked about traditions new and old, and whether or not to continue or begin them. When a family member will no longer be around to celebrate the holidays, some traditions may no longer be appropriate. A new tradition may help everyone to move forward together. This is an important subject for the adults in the family to discuss openly.

Regardless of your family situation, I believe that remembering to practice kindness in every moment is the key to developing a healthy relationship with grief. I walked away from the group with a few short lines that I have found useful on my own path, especially during holidays and times when grief is strong. For those who relate to these situations, I encourage you to find caregiver support for yourself and your loved ones this holiday season.

For this year,

It’s normal for us not to be normal,

And we can give ourselves permission to be that way,

And we can be mindful of this for ourselves and those around us.

 

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