By Becky Murray, CVT, LPC —
Hi all! Thank you for joining me. I’ve had a pretty long absence from the blog due to an injury mid-year which caused me to be out of work for a while, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since (I’m OK!). I had been addressing the most frequent statements or questions I hear from clients, and I will pick that up again in the New Year. Instead, I want to take this entry to talk about coping with loss over the holidays.
The holidays are portrayed as a magical time when everyone is happy and giving. The reality, however, is that this time of year is filled with stress at the best of times. I thought I would share some common concerns as well as tips for coping. When reading this, keep in mind: the holidays come back every year! Being kind to yourself when you are grieving will not ruin the holidays for anyone.
Many people tell me that they worry or have anxiety from anticipating the sadness and pain they will feel on a holiday after a loss. This is especially true if their pet was a big part of that holiday. One way to reduce this worry is to have a plan for how the day will go. Don’t take on too many projects or responsibilities. Talk to family members about how you are feeling. Let them know that you cannot take on extra responsibilities, and that you might not be full of holiday cheer in the days to come.
If you decide not to participate in the holidays, that’s ok. If you do not decorate, you can decorate next year. If you don’t want to host a dinner, ask someone else to take your turn. I have talked with people who decided to “skip” the holidays altogether. Conversely, do not feel guilty if you still want to participate. Having the support of family around you, keeping busy, or continuing traditions to maintain a connection to the loved one you lost might be just what you need.
The point is there is no precise formula for coping. Do what feels best for you. Lots of people, from busybody strangers to well-intentioned loved ones, will have suggestions for what you “should” do to cope. Oftentimes, well-meaning loved ones just cannot stand seeing you unhappy or in pain. Our society in general does not cope with negative experiences or feelings well.
The result is people who try to “turn the frown upside down”. We offer distractions, gifts, and advice instead of offering silence or a shoulder or a listening ear. However, negative feelings, while not fun, are important and need to be expressed. Regardless of the intent, what is best for you is what you need. It’s important that you take care of you now. Grief can be a normal, organic process but additional stressors may complicate the process.
If you think they will listen, try telling family and friends that you understand what they are trying to do and you appreciate it. But right now, what you need is _____. Fill in the blank with what you do need. Space. A safe place to be vulnerable, talk about your pet and cry. No pressure to be happy. If you are worried they will not be receptive, maybe you can share less of how you are feeling and merely bow out of some events, giving a generic excuse.
Another common issue at the holidays is loneliness. This is especially true for people whose pet was the only other presence in the home. Sleeping in the house alone and coming home to an empty house can be major issues. This is a good time to reach out to people you can trust to honor your grief. If that support system is small, find other outlets.
A pet loss support group is a great way to honor your pets’ memory and receive support from others. If there is not one close to you, there are some good online support groups. I have a group here at VSC and I can also give you referrals to others if you are not in the area.
Lastly, I’m going to say this again: the holidays will come back! You may feel like you are disappointing people if you are not yourself this year. Maybe you are. But in five years, will it matter? Self-care and finding support are both key to getting through a loss. You are not selfish to concentrate on those for now. Happy Holidays- and if they’re not, maybe next time!
Becky Murray is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT) that counsels clients of VSC and our referral community on pet loss, quality of life decisions for pets and grief. She also lectures extensively in the veterinary community on Compassion Fatigue. You may reach Becky at email@example.com. More information about our services may be found here.