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Not just Prince and David Bowie: Professor Offers Tips Getting Through the Holidays For Those Who Lost a Loved One in 2016

How the Bereaved and Those Who Want to Support Them Can Navigate the Season


Christmas Candles

David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Nancy Reagan and Fidel Castro all passed away in 2016. So did fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, siblings and friends of people everywhere. More than 2.6 million died, according to the Centers for Disease Control, leaving behind an estimated 8 million immediate family members. That means almost everyone knows someone in mourning.

As Christmas, Hanukkah and the holiday season approach, National Louis University Associate Professor David SanFilippo, Ph.D., says those who are left behind may confront a confusing mix of feelings, from remorse and emptiness to bittersweet memories of holidays past. 

SanFilippo, an associate professor who teaches courses on death, dying and consciousness, has provided tips, below, for those experiencing loss and grief.

Survivors are going through either the initial, all-consuming emotions of grief or, when those subside, a bereavement period. Bereavement has no set time frame and can last for months, years or decades. Throughout the bereavement period, grief may return in waves of emotion brought on by memories and reminders of the lost loved one. Holidays are major events that cause the “waves” to crest at high points, leaving the bereaved person in the troughs of sadness, yearning, despair and regret of lost opportunities. 

As survivors navigate through the holiday season and the grief they are feeling, SanFilippo, suggests they honor whatever feelings come up for them.

“They are real feelings and should be recognized,” SanFilippo said. “Everyone grieves in their own way and should be allowed to grieve in their own manner and time as long as the grieving process does not become harmful to the bereaved or others.”

Signs that grieving may become harmful include disbelief that the loved one is really gone, alcohol and drug use, inability to function in daily life and/or a feeling life has become meaningless.

Here are suggestions for navigating the waves of grief during the holidays:

  1. Go at your own pace getting involved in the season and its traditions and rituals. Some survivors may want to sit out the holidays this year, and if it feels right to them, they should have that choice. Other survivors may try to immerse themselves in the spiritual or joyful dimension of the holidays, to allow children, family members or just themselves to enjoy the season. Still other survivors will feel most comfortable with a muted celebration, a type of nod to the holiday season while acknowledging their state of bereavement.
  2. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and acknowledge their intensity and depth. Survivors should know it’s okay to cry, and to feel sad or empty. It’s okay to feel the shock that an important person in one’s life is missing. It’s also okay to feel joy in the spirit of goodness that many find in the holidays, the love of those still alive and the gratitude of all the holidays spent with the departed loved one.
  3. Let people help you. Sometimes the gift to others is in allowing them to help us  during periods of grief. Remember that a bereaved person’s tender emotions touch others, even if they didn’t know the departed loved one well. This is also the time for the bereaved to tap into their support system, such as friends from the neighborhood or place of worship, or develop a support system, such as a grief support group.
  4. Develop new traditions or rituals that celebrate the living and remember the departed. For example, families could light a candle to cherish lost loved ones and honor their presence at holidays in the past.
  5. Create a memorial for the lost loved one. As an example, when we lost our granddaughter we created a memorial garden in her honor in our backyard. During the warm months, the garden grows colorful flowers. In the cold months, they are  replaced with pretty artificial flowers.
  6. Share stories of the lost loved one. We are all ultimately remembered by the stories people tell of us. We also can find comfort in hearing stories other people tell about our loved ones.
  7. As you feel inclined, share the story of your bereavement journey. One never knows whom one may help by sharing one’s story. Others may be experiencing a different type of grief, and an inspirational story could encourage them.
  8. If you feel overwhelmed by grief, consult a professional to help you through your bereavement. To find one, check with a funeral home director, a physician or a member of the clergy or spiritual leader.
  9. After the initial period of intense grief passes, focus on the good you can bring to others by volunteering or making a concentrated effort to help others in need. Helping others can help grieving individuals find added purpose during their time of sadness.
  10. Take care of your physical health during times of emotional grief and stress. Maintaining regular exercise and healthy eating habits will not eliminate the grief, but running yourself down helps no one. Remember that your loved one would want you to be healthy.

For those who are walking with a loved one or friend on their bereavement journey, the most important thing one can do is to actively listen and be there if the loved one or friend reaches out.  Support people must be mindful that each bereaved person’s grieving process is personal and may be influenced by many factors such as age, education, relationships, culture, religion, how close they were to the deceased and whether they had unresolved issues with the deceased. 


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