Coping with Grief and Loss During the Holidays
The holidays are in full swing. Una pachanga everyone! But maybe you don’t feel like a fiesta, especially if you’ve lost a loved one.
This year, because of the fear caused by the pandemic, you may feel grief even if no one close to you has passed away. Grief can come from losing a pet, your health, or your job. Though everyone feels grief differently, everyone needs the same dignity and respect for the way they process it.
Honor Your Feelings
“Grief is grief,” said Certified Grief Recovery Specialist Tony Maldonado, “regardless of the culture. However, Hispanics do not like dealing with it because it hurts. Honor your feelings. If you don’t want to assist in a fiesta, you have a right to honor your feelings. If you decide to attend a support group or work with your grief, that’s okay.”
Maldonado knows grief well. He has worked in grief counseling since 2006. The skills he shares are the same he used to heal his own heart when he lost his wife of 48 years to terminal cancer in 2019. When it comes to the holidays, Maldonado insisted not to spend them alone, even if you have to invite yourself to a dinner.
“The pain is so enormous,” Maldonado explained, “that you start feeling like you’re going crazy. So don’t spend it by yourself. It’s never healthy, especially the first year. Do not spend it alone for your own self-care and sanity.”
Maldonado suggested celebrating the holidays in a low-key way. If you always send cards but don’t feel like it, just send a few or send emails instead. Maybe you always decorate but don’t feel like it this year. Scale it down.
“Let the tears flow,” Maldonado said. “It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to change some traditions.”
If you want to celebrate, you can include the departed with memory candles. The tradition is that everyone takes turns to say something positive about the loved one they lost. After one person says something, they light a candle. The next person says something and then lights a candle, and so on.
“I’ve done that many times,” Maldonado said, “and people love it. It’s very healing.”
Listen, Listen, Listen
How do you approach someone who is dealing with grief? Just listen.
“Don’t ever say you know how they feel,” Maldonado advised. “That’s not true. Also, don’t ever say, be strong. No. Anything that has to do with your opinion of what they should do, keep it to yourself. It will come out wrong and will hurt instead of help the individual.”
“People tell me how others try to tell them what to do,” Maldonado continued. “I ask them, ‘Do you have a broken leg? A broken foot? So you don’t need to be fixed. But you are hurting. You’re heartbroken and there’s a difference. You need to be listened to with dignity and respect.’”
If a person does not want to talk, Maldonado advised to allow the silence. This gives people a chance to speak. Then ask what has happened to make them not want to talk. Use open-ended questions — questions that do not have a yes or no answer but anything with why, what or how. Open-ended questions help the griever express what’s going on in their heart.
“If it’s a child,” Maldonado said, “just let them talk. Be human. Share that you, too, miss the loved one. You, too, cry and get sad. These are skills you can use.”
And then Maldonado told a story to emphasize the importance of talking through grief by comparing the heart to a geode. This story, he said, applies to everyone, no matter what age.
“There are some rocks called geodes that look crusty and ugly on the outside. Well, that’s our heart whenever we are hurting and keep our grief in. But when you open that geode, it has beautiful crystals inside. Some are different colors. When you open and share, you open up to bring the beauty of who your loved one was.”
Opening up also protects your health. Pent-up grief can cause depression, trouble sleeping and general aches and pains. It can also result in health problems like high or low blood pressure, a heart attack or nervous breakdown.
There are warning signs of unhealthy grief. Maybe the house is a mess when it used to be clean. Or a grieving family member stops bathing. Maybe you don’t have energy or a desire to talk to anyone. When is it appropriate to seek professional help?
“When someone you know is ready to seek outside help, don’t force the issue,” Maldonado said. “If it doesn’t come from them, it will not work. Instead try saying, ‘Have you tried talking to someone else? Someone that won’t be pushy or force you to do anything but be present for whatever you want to say.’ Eventually, they will ask for help.”
Published in Prensa Arizona, 12/9/2021