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Grief and the Holidays

The holidays can be a very difficult time whether you are experiencing a recent loss or a loss from a long time ago. Holiday activities such as drinking hot chocolate, watching Christmas movies, and spending time with close family and friends can make us miss our loved ones even more. We may experience feelings of sadness, frustration, and loneliness or feel as though we are alone in our pain. The holidays are inevitable, thus, we have to make a conscious effort to be attuned to our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Further, it is essential that we are attentive to our emotions and intentional with our actions. Although these times can be challenging there are a few strategies that can be helpful as we transition through the holiday season.

Reach out to others

After experiencing a loss we sometimes feel alone in our pain and emotions. When we feel alone this can lead us to isolation and minimal socialization. The fact is, you are not alone and others around you may be experiencing pain and suffering of their own. During the holidays, do not be afraid to reach out to your friends and family or others who have offered support. Sometimes we may just want to share a memory about someone we lost, talk about our feelings, or share what we are missing. Additionally, other family members may be eager to share as well, but resist because they do not want to burden others with their pain. When we grieve, we want to feel heard, validated, and supported. Lean on someone who will listen to you without judgment, analysis, or criticism and understand that grief is not a quick fix. When we have the opportunity to share with a safe person, we can experience an emotional release after sharing what was weighted so heavily on our chest.

It is also important not compare your losses when you are sharing with others. When we compare our losses it minimizes our feelings and takes away from our individual relationships. We will never truly understand what someone is going through because we each have our own unique relationships to the individual we are grieving. Be open to a variety of losses, individual experiences and different feelings associated with the loss.

Don’t ignore your feelings

Grief and loss is painful, heart wrenching, and emotionally draining. Through my own loss I felt as though my heart was bleeding and there was no medicine or band-aid that could stop it. Although we experience deep pain, it is important not to ignore or internalize how we are feeling. It seems easy to turn away from the pain because it hurts so much; however ignoring how we feel just buries the pain and becomes cumulatively negative. When we bury the pain it doesn’t go away, rather stays within us and builds up until we reach an emotional boiling point. Be gentle and acknowledge how you are feeling. Unfortunately with grief, we have to go through the pain, not over, below, or around it.

Maintain your traditions 

 Over the holidays it can be helpful to maintain traditions. Although our physical relationship with our loved one may have come to an end, our emotional and spiritual relationship will continue forever. Even though our loved ones aren’t here in present day, we can honor our relationships by maintaining traditions. Honoring traditions creates a safe space, opportunity for communication, and for stories to be shared. Whether these stories make you cry or make you laugh, it is normal experience to feel several emotions. Be intentional with the traditions that are important to you. You may discover some traditions that you want to keep, some you are ready to move forward from and also create new traditions in the process.

My dad’s birthday is December 28th, and every year since he died, we always have dinner with close family friends. We reminisce about our memories with him and talk about our current lives and hope and dreams for the future. This tradition helps me keep my emotional and spiritual relationship with him alive and continue to incorporate him in my life.

Let go of expectations

Sometimes we plan or have expectations about how we are going to feel around the holidays. Allow yourself to feel and invite all emotions during this holiday season. At times you may feel sadness but you also may find yourself experiencing happiness and laughter. When this happens we sometimes feel guilty or feel as though we shouldn’t feel happiness at this time. When we grieve, all emotions are normal and natural including happiness and laughter. If you wake up Christmas morning and feel happy, welcome this emotion. When we have expectations about how we are supposed to feel is can cause confusion or we may think we shouldn’t feel our current emotions. We can’t predict how we will feel, we will only know until we are in that present moment. Letting go of these expectations and inviting all emotions will allow you to be authentic and honest with your grief and healing.

Take care of yourself

Be gentle with yourself and listen to your heart and your body. Over the holidays be conscious and intentional about your self care routines. Self-care can include a massage, yoga class, watching a movie, socializing with friends, and exercising. It is natural for us to want to fill our time with work, school, or other activities to avoid the pain. Self-care is different as we take the time to acknowledge what we need physically and emotionally to help us cope. Be intentional and listen to what your body and heart needs, as it will support you on your emotional journey.

Additionally, be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion. You have experienced a heart wrenching loss and do not need to be tough and strong. True strength includes caring for yourself, being attuned to your emotions, vulnerability, and being honest about how you feel. Be compassionate towards yourself and let go of expectations of where you think you should be with your grief, pain, and healing. Kristen Neff said,  “With self-compassion we give ourselves the same kindness and care we would give to a good friend.”

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

Photo credit: www.ottawacancer.ca/holiday-grief

References:

Neff, K. (2013). Self compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

The Benefits of Group Therapy

Group therapy is a unique and supportive therapeutic environment that can foster a safe place for healing from a loss. The first time I completed the Grief Recovery Method Program was in a group setting. I was full of anxiety and fear, especially the thought of having to share my deepest sadness with other people. I was overwhelmed with happiness when I found group therapy to be transformational and played a key role in my healing. The support, compassion, and healing I felt through this model of therapy helped me find courage to move forward and heal from my losses. When we grieve we may feel alone, or have a difficult time identifying how we feel, and also feel isolated at the same time. During group, you can recognize that you are not alone and the support and compassion that is received allows you to be yourself and take action in your healing.

You Are Not Alone 

When our hearts are breaking and we are emotionally suffering, we may feel alone and isolated in this process. It may seem like our pain and sadness is so heavy and overwhelming that others must not know how it feels for us or what it is feels like at all. Irvin Yalom & Molyn Leszcz (2005) authors of The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy explains that many people begin therapy with the idea that they are unique in their wretchedness or have unacceptable problems, thoughts and feelings. Our sadness, our grief, and our relationships we lost is unique to us, therefore grieving, healing, and mourning is unique to us as well.

No one will truly know how we feel, because we all grieve different relationships and losses; however other people are experiencing their own pain and suffering and may be feeling lonely and isolated too. We are not alone in our suffering. Having the opportunity to work in a group helps us understand that grief does not have to be a lonely and isolating process, rather noticing that others are going through their unique pain as well. Understanding that we are not alone can allow us to feel safe, heard, and validated. When we can recognize others are also suffering, we begin to feel the human connection and can lessen our feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Vocalizing and Identifying Emotions

For some, social support may be minimal or others may feel they can’t talk to people in their lives about their loss. For me, I felt like I was burdening others with my grief, and therefore I slowly stopped talking about how I felt. When we feel like we are not supported we can begin to hide our feelings and not voice them anymore. Group therapy allows us to hear others speak about their loss, which can encourage us to find our voice again. Witnessing others begin to feel vulnerable and have courage to share their story can give us the strength to begin to share ours again.

Additionally, our pain is sometimes so intense we do not know how to identify or explain our loss with words. Listening to others share and describe their losses can help us make connections and identify emotion words that can describe our story. In my experience, I felt stuck in my grief, but I could not uncover the word that correctly explained how I was feeling. I remember hearing someone speak up and say “Sometimes I feel unwanted or unloved.” Immediately after I heard this sentence, I burst out into tears because feeling unlovable was the exact term I needed to describe how I was feeling. It was in the moment that I was able to identify and acknowledge what was keeping me stuck in my pain and then take action in my recovery and healing to move forward.

The Need for Human Connection

Ivrin Yalom & Molyn Leszcz share that “people need people, for initial and continued survival, for socialization and the pursuit of satisfaction. No one, not the dying nor the outcast or the mighty transcends the need for human contact. What people need is to make contact, to touch others, voice their concerns and to feel a sense of inclusion and belonging.”

Human beings need connection and want to feel a sense of belonging. When something exciting happens in your life who do you turn to? When something sad happens in your life who do you confide in? When you experience a success in your life who do you share it with? We all look for connection in our good times and our challenging times in our lives. When we find that connection we strive for acceptance, compassion and belonging.

Brene Brown explains that when we feel a sense of belonging we do not have to change who we are, rather we are able to be who we are. Together as a group, group norms are established including having no judgement, analysis or criticism. When we look from this lens, we allow people to be vulnerable and be who they are which in turn creates the feeling of belonging. Support and connection is one of the most powerful and therapeutic foundations for healing. When we have the opportunity to voice our feelings to another human, we can feel safe, heard, and validated. We feel a sense of belonging, which creates a strong foundation for us to be courageous and share our pain with others who are willing to support us.

Taking the steps to join a group may be anxiety provoking or intimidating. I encourage you to see the benefits of group therapy and think about if it could be a good fit for you. At The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre, we offer a 6-Week Pet Loss Group, 8-Week Grief Recovery Group,  4-Week When Children Grieve Group, and 2-Day Grief Recovery Group Workshop. Please click here for upcoming group and workshop dates.

If you are seeking professional support to address your grief or trauma, our team is equipped with the tools to help. Please reach out to us at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre at 780-288-8011 or info@healmyheart.ca.

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

References:

Brown, B. (2016). The Gifts of Imperfection. [United States]: Joosr Ltd.

Yalom, I., & Leszcz, M. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (5th ed.). New York: Basic Books.

The Impact of Grief and Trauma On the Brain

Grief is an emotional experience that causes us to feel deep pain and sadness, and can influence several areas of our lives. Our pain and sadness can become so intense that is consumes every ounce of energy we have. We recognize that grieving is emotional as we can feel it in our heart, but what is happening in our brain?

Memory and Focus

Grief not only impacts us emotionally, it affects our cognitive functioning as well. When we are grieving, we tend to become preoccupied with thoughts and emotions related to the loss, which tends to limit our ability to access our working memory and remember things like we used too. When we are overwhelmed by our loss experience, we also find it more difficult to concentrate and focus on any task at hand.

Have you ever been driving and wondered how you got from point A to point B? Or have you been daydreaming at work and discovered an hour has gone by and you don’t know what you have done within that hour? After working with several grievers, John James and Russell Friedman, founders of The Grief Recovery Institute, identified that grief consumes a significant amount of mental energy. When the emotional centre of our brain is overwhelmed, it makes it very difficult for us to engage in tasks that we would typically find easy and natural to focus on.

Organizing Thoughts

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brooklyn, Massachusetts and the author of “The Body Keeps the Score.” He has done extensive research on how grief and trauma affects the brain. Dr. Van Der Kolk explains that  the right hemisphere of our brain processes emotions, senses, intuition, and imagination. Whereas the left hemisphere of the brain processes logic, facts, thoughts, and communication. After experiencing grief and trauma our left hemisphere may be impacted and unable to function adequately, ultimately impacting how our right hemisphere organizes thoughts and converts emotions into words. It often feels like we’re “losing our mind” because we actually have a reduced ability to think.

Fight or Flight Response

What is a fight or flight response? I first learned about our fight or flight response in a biology class in high school. I was unaware of how important and significant this response is. For those who are not familiar, our fight or flight response is a physiological response that happens we are in a dangerous, stressful or harmful situation. It is our body’s automatic survival tool. After experiencing trauma our fight or flight response kicks in.

Dr. Bruce Perry wrote a book called “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog”. He shares his research and experiences working with children who are exposed to trauma. He indicated that the average heartbeat for a child ranges from 70-90 beats per minute. In one of his stories, he shared that he checked the pulse of a young girl who had been exposed to trauma and found that her resting heart rate was 160 beats per minute. Perry explained that her heart rate was high because her stress-response system was constantly activated.

Further, hormones and neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and noradrenaline are activated in the brain during a stressful event and control our heartbeat. Dr. Perry suggests that months or years after experiencing trauma, our brains and bodies will still create an overactive response. After we experience such devastating events, our brains will automatically respond if there is anticipation or in a situation that is familiar. Our body and brain are trying to protect and prepare us with the information it knows. This explains why we may experience anxiety, fear, or our fight and flight response when visiting a place where the traumatic even occurred.

Your Healing Journey

Experiencing grief and trauma can be devastating as it not only impacts us emotionally and physically but also physiologically. Once we become aware of how impactful grief and trauma is on our capacities to function in day-to-day life, we can learn how to be more compassionate and kind with ourselves. We can recognize that it is a normal and natural response to painful life situations.

It is also important to take action toward healing.

One powerful and important way to begin your healing journey, is to give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions that come up. Imagine your body like a processing plant for feelings, acknowledging and expressing every emotion that arises. This allows your body to naturally process the painful emotions associated to your loss experience so you can continue to move forward in a healthy way. When we stop the natural processing of emotions, the energy of those emotions becomes stored in our bodies, creating a negatively cumulative impact on our bodies and in our capacities for happiness, joy, and healing.

If you are seeking professional support to address your grief or trauma, our team is equipped with the tools to help. Please reach out to us at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre at 780-288-8011 or info@healmyheart.ca.

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

Photo credit: https://bit.ly/32hH44Z

References:

Perry, B., & Szalavitz, M. The boy who was raised as a dog. United States: Hachette
Book Group.Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2003). The resilience factor. New York: Three River Press.

Van der Kolk, B., & Pratt, S. (2015). The body keeps the score. [United States]:
IDreamBooks Inc.

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