Experts have generally divided the grieving (or mourning) process into three stages, which are (1) shock and denial; (2) acute mourning, when the shock gives way to an all too painful awareness of the loss of a loved one(s); and (3) resolution, when the intense feelings of the middle stage pass and the grieving person feels able to move on with their life. Although writers previously considered normal grieving to involve an orderly and timely progression through these phases, current thinking instead suggests that there exists enormous variation in how normal people mourn. Thus, it is quite possible that the mourner may move back and forth between the stages of acute mourning and resolution. And, there is no defined time in which mourning must end.
What all of this means is, as the holidays approach for those who have suddenly lost loved ones, that not only is there no cookbook way to approach the holidays but also that grieving and the holidays can and do co-exist. Holidays are naturally times when the absence of loved ones is felt more acutely. You may very well feel caught up in thinking about and feeling your loss just when you may have thought you had moved on and restored some normalcy to your life. Or, if you were still in a early phase of mourning before the holidays, this may yet become heightened during the holidays.
Although there is no clear evidence that openly acknowledging your loss during the holidays is healthier, experience suggests that doing so may in fact make both your grieving process and the holidays more meaningful for you and those around you. Whether or not you adhere to past holiday traditions or engage in your usual holiday activity this year will be up to you. But, you and yours will most certainly be best served if you are able to acknowledge the unusual poignancy and confusion that the holidays present after having suffered the loss of a loved one.
One government pamphlet has thoughtfully likened the situation of the mourner to that of a confused immigrant in a foreign land. This is all the more so as survivors try to find their own personal balance between mourning and celebration during what we otherwise like to think of as a season of unabashed joy.
Finally, we should close with a note of caution about grieving during the holidays. As with any other time in the grieving process, we should be attentive to the possibility that grieving can turn into problems that warrant attention from a mental health professional. Warning signs of such a situation include excessive feelings of guilt, suicidal thoughts, or drug or alcohol abuse. Grieving is normal, but if you are worried that your grieving, or that of a friend or loved one, may be abnormal, professional help is available.
– Craig L. Katz, MD
Disaster Psychiatry Outreach