Losing a loved one stays with us forever. But holidays, in particular, can make the loss even tougher to handle.
“Holidays tend to cause anniversary reactions,” according to George A. Bonanno, Ph.D, professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College at Columbia University. Anniversary reactions occur on the anniversary of an important event or holiday. These times remind us of the person who’s no longer with us, which can cause the pain of grief, he said. “Even the most resilient people have this.”
With its focus on love, relationships and romance, Valentine’s Day can be especially difficult. As Gloria Lloyd, bereavement community program educator at Mary Washington Hospice, said, it’s hard to escape the enthusiasm, because reminders are everywhere.
Below are some ideas to help you cope on Valentine’s Day.
1. Eliminate expectations.
Forget the idea that grief is a five-stage process. Everyone grieves differently, Lloyd said. (Recent research has, in fact, discredited Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.) You may be upset on Valentine’s Day, you may feel numb or you may be OK. There is no specific way you should feel.
Most people do feel pangs of sadness, said Bonanno, author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. But these bouts aren’t continuous. Grief comes in waves, he noted. (Bonanno has also written extensively about how resilient people are.)
And there may be times when you want to laugh or smile. “Don’t be afraid of joy and laughter,” he said. In fact, research has shown that positive emotions and laughter are hugely helpful when coping with loss.
In general, when it comes to how you experience loss, ”Don’t grade yourself or anyone else,” Lloyd said.
2. Have a plan.
You don’t want to be blindsided on the day, Lloyd said. So consider what you’d like to do with your time. You might want to schedule a date with your friends to see a movie or grab dinner, she suggested. Or save your best book to read while sipping tea, she said.
3. Seek support.
Having the support of loved ones who understand how you’re feeling can be very helpful. You can tell your friends or family that you don’t want to be alone that day.
Another option is to attend a support group. Lloyd hosts an annual support group for Valentine’s Day several days before the holiday (see below for more information). Last year, 40 people attended the session.
It’s “very powerful to walk into a room and realize that you aren’t alone,” she said.
4. Journal or write it down.
Journaling can help you release those stored-up feelings, Lloyd said. It can help you reflect on your thoughts, added grief counselor Rob Zucker.
5. Honor the person, if you’re comfortable with that.
For some people, it’s important and comforting to honor their loved one on Valentine’s Day. This may include writing the person a letter or a Valentine’s Day card or buying flowers in their honor.
As Lloyd said, we continue to bond with loved ones throughout our lives. It may be a cliché but it’s true: That person is always in our hearts. Again, only do this if you feel comfortable.
6. Do what works for you.
As mentioned above, choose activities that feel right to you (self-destructive activities being the exception, of course). For some people, reminiscing about past Valentine’s Days is helpful, Lloyd said, while for others, it’s painful. What works for one person will not work for another, according to Zucker, author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief Is Shared.
Think about what will make you feel better. If you’re not sure, consider what healthy coping skills have helped you before when facing difficult times, he said.
Or, “cope ugly.” Bonnanno uses the term “coping ugly” to “underscore the idea that coping does not necessarily need to be a thing of beauty; it just needs to get the job done,” he wrote in a 2008 article in Pediatrics.
One example of coping ugly is adopting a self-serving bias — when we take credit for successes but blame outside forces for failure. When it comes to coping with difficult events, like the death of a loved one, self-serving biases are actually adaptive, writes Bonanno in his book.
7. Practice self-care.
Make sure to get enough sleep, eat well and exercise, Lloyd said. “If you’re tired, grief will overwhelm you.” Also, be kind to yourself. Losing a loved one is devastating and we all do the best we can.
As Lloyd said, “there’s no magic potion” for coping on Valentine’s Days or other days. The key is to take good care of yourself and do what helps you cope.
Coping with a Broken Heart: Hospice Support Care and Mary Washington Hospice will be co-sponsoring this program on Saturday, February 12, 2011, from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Main Branch of the Rappahannock Regional Library, 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, VA. This program is for adults who have experienced the death of a loved one and will feature the film, “Tear Soup,” followed by time for questions and discussion. A light lunch will be served before the presentation. This program is offered free of charge but pre-registration is requested. For more information and/or to pre-register, please contact Diane Ebenal with Mary Washington Hospice at 540-741-2377. Diane.ebenal at mwhc.com
Photo by Molly DG, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.