The Holidays, Trauma and Loss: A Time For Healing And A Time To Make Meaning

Dr. Donna Gaffney
Project Rebirth

Significant life changes, joyous or painful, usually elicit some kind of “anniversary” reaction. This period of remembering usually refers to a specific time frame after an event has occurred; a week, month, and most commonly, a year. The reactions can range from intense re-experiencing of the thoughts, feelings, and even images connected with the event to thoughtful meditation on the meaning of the event and the person involved. However, holidays, birthdays and “rites of passage” can also re-activate feelings that occurred at earlier times of grief. Traumatic events, especially traumatic loss, may precipitate increased feelings of loss and emotional distress at anniversaries and holidays. This can be one of the most challenging times for survivors and their families. It can also result in the frustration of others who may not understand why a person is angry, upset, or distant.

Holidays challenge most people, grieving or not. Old family issues are re-awakened and those who are no longer alive are missed in a more intense way. Families imagine the most romantic views of the holidays with sweet memories from their childhoods. But there can also be a yearning for the perfect holiday that “might have been.” These wishes and hoped for events are often reinforced by advertising, marketing and the media. In truth, the reality often falls short of such high expectations.

Traumatic events that occur at holidays and other important celebrations are especially complicated. The holidays are a time of stress for many trauma survivors because there seems to be an increased sense of isolation. He or she perceives the rest of the world as joyful and happy, while the survivor is mired in the sadness of sad past events. For those who witnessed the loss of friends and co-workers, this pain can be compounded by grief for peers and their families who now face the holidays without those loved ones. Sometimes Survivor guilt reappears, people repeatedly ask the question, “Why did I survive?”

Financial difficulties can seem even more difficult by the commercialization of the holidays. Yet this can be a time to take advantage of creating a unique and very personal way of celebrating. We don't have to conform to the rigid commercial stereotype of expensive gifts and big gatherings. In fact, some people may not be comfortable in crowds or at parties, as a result small meaningful celebrations, may feel more appropriate.

It is important to create new rituals to help in the healing process.

Children are especially perceptive and will watch how their family members move through this emotionally charged time. A drastic change or even the elimination of a traditional family celebration will only compound the loss for children, “I don’t have my father and now I won’t Christmas either.” Discussing what the family might like to do can be empowering for children. This may be difficult for the adults, but be patient and allow the younger generation to express their thoughts and ideas.

Planning events and talking about possibilities with family members can help prevent disappointments. Small changes in existing family traditions are often easier than making a major shift. Sometimes family traditions are out of balance and only please one side of the family, one spouse or parent. To keep things balanced, ask what others would like to do for the holidays.

To plan rituals requires time, thought, and communication by family members in the weeks before the holiday. As the rituals are being planned it needs to be clear that they are meaningful for all the members who are involved -- not just done in order to appease one person. There also needs to be room for those who don't want to be involved, without becoming the target of resentment from others.

We may need to make the holiday different, to both recognize the loss (making it clear that the holiday rituals will not be the same as before) and move toward building new rituals, new roles, and new meanings.

Factors That Can Influence How We Respond To Holidays and Celebrations
Since the last time you celebrated this holiday:
Has anyone assumed a new role?
Are there changes in your living situations?
Are there any financial changes?
Is there an addition of a new family member (permanent or temporary)?
Is the loss of a family member (death, divorce, moving to own home/apt)?
Has there been a recent move?
Does anyone in the family have a new job?
Are any of the children attending a new school?

How Tradition Facilitates Healing: Religious, cultural, or historical aspects of a holiday provide a vital connection to the past.

Maintaining and following certain traditions can be a source of comfort. The routine of familiar past celebrations can provide a sense of security and continuity in life when one feels overwhelmed.

There is comfort in carrying on with past traditions that are a tribute to and reminder of those who have died; others prefer to create new routines and ways to honor someone's memory.

A strong social support network is a protective factor from stress and especially from trauma. Making sure that friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors have a place to go.

Realize the importance of daily life within our family.

We may need to make the holiday different, to both recognize the loss (making it clear that the holiday rituals will not be the same as before) and move toward building new rituals, new roles, and new meanings.

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