Tips for Tough (Holiday) Times

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CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. -

It might feel like the Christmas carols are now in a minor key. What used to be a joyful tune is now a melancholy one. Vicky Tomlin, a local licensed mental health therapist, says that holidays can be tricky when there are stressors like financial strain, divorce, or family conflict. “Adding the loss of a loved one can make this season particularly difficult,” says. “Grieving is a journey.”

On that journey, the holidays are rough terrain.  “Holidays are loaded with memories,” Tomlin notes. “Now [the holidays] last two months, even three months. People think, ‘If I can just get through the holidays….’ But the planning has become more extensive, and the preparations more expensive. Then you have social media reminding you all the time as well.”

Tomlin advises, “There is no proper way. Give yourself permission to grieve. Give yourself permission to pause, to slow down, to not overextend yourself. Start a new tradition. Don’t worry about how you’re going to be, just be. But also give yourself permission to live—to enjoy moments. If you struggle to do that, think of it as honoring the ones who aren’t here.”

“We’re going to be experiencing death the rest of our lives,” she continues. “Losing a parent is the natural order. Losing a child is out of order. It is going to come in waves. Mourning never goes away; the intensity of it changes. Just this week my mom, who is 85, said this season she really misses her parents. They passed away 40 years ago.”

Tomlin speaks from both professional and personal experience: “There have been a lot of losses in my family this year, a 22-year-old in my extended family. I also lost my best friend after four months with cancer. She has three kids she had to say goodbye to.”

Tomlin recommends support groups for those who are grieving, but individual counseling is also a good option: “Sometimes you want to talk to people who aren’t family or friends. Sometimes we are mourning missed opportunities, missed reconciliation, or we’re mourning what wasn’t. You’re also mourning the loss of future events. This can all compound or complicate grief. Individual counseling doesn’t have to be extended. Two or three sessions can be very beneficial.”

Surviving the Holidays

Lily Serrano shares practical tips from the GriefShare Surviving the Holidays seminar. They may be the perfect present.

PREPARE: The ambush of emotions can attack at any time; prepare beforehand.

ACCEPT the difficulty of this time of year and your loss. Remind yourself that it’s a season and it will pass.

SOCIALIZE: Don’t hibernate. Insecure feelings may tempt you to isolate, but force yourself to go out even if it’s only for a short time.

LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS: Movies and songs paint an unrealistic picture of the holidays.

DON’T ANESTHETIZE the pain with drugs or alcohol: Numbing emotional distress with chemicals creates more depression.

TRIMMING: If old ornaments or trimmings cause too much pain, don’t hang them this year. Put them aside for another time.

GET UP AND MOVE: Take care of your physical well-being. Healthy foods will give you strength; fattening and sugar-filled foods can worse your depression. Exercise produces natural stress reducers.

COPING STRATEGY: Have the phone number of your counselor, pastor, church, close friend or hotline already taped to your phone. Make the commitment to call if negative thoughts get fierce.

For more: griefshare.org

She offers some thoughts for those who want to support someone who is grieving. “Invite them over for dinner or to just stop by,” she suggests. “Give them options to pass and let them make those decisions for themselves. Do not push them into things they might not be ready for. Offer different things. Give them space. When you invite someone, let them know they can come with whatever emotion they’re feeling. They don’t have to have everything put together. Respect that space that they might need. Offer that you’re there if they might need it.”

Pastor Frank Ippolito serves as senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Vineland and is also a chaplain with the Vineland Police Department and the Cumberland County Sheriff. He counsels others through the grieving process but also has firsthand experience: “In June 2006, my wife passed away. I wondered how I was going to face Christmas. My mind always wanted to go down the ‘poor me’ trek. My thought in the natural realm was my wife was going to miss out on it. I had to correct myself with Bible theology. God knew Tammy was not going to be here.“

Ippolito had just finished a grief counseling session before his wife died, so he felt put to the test. The emotions of grief we are going to feel, he says. “Don’t ignore them. God gave them to us. I am going to feel. But I don’t want to be ruled by them. Feel them but they’re not in the driver’s seat.”

We are going to miss people at the holidays; that’s normal, he says, “but we shouldn’t forget the purpose of Christmas. It is not to be with family, that’s a benefit. It’s not the traditions. That’s a benefit. The purpose is to celebrate the incarnation and the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. That truth doesn’t change regardless of who is at our celebration.”

Ippolito’s advice for surviving the holidays is “to definitely be around others. We have a tendency to stay alone and brood. Instead of focusing on the empty chair, focus on all the full chairs. It’s also not a good idea to self-medicate with booze or to turn back to an addiction. Instead of turning to artificial means, turn to God.”

Lily Serrano runs a GriefShare group in Vineland. GriefShare is a national non-profit that runs grief support groups.

“I just did a seminar on tips and survival techniques for people about how to handle the holidays,” Serrano said. She rattled off a few of the topics: “How to exit a party when you’re being hijacked by your emotions. How to set up an exit plan. How to deflect questions that you feel may hijack you.”

She explains, “Grief is tiring. You may start to feel weary or tired. Someone may ask something that will trigger you. You need to know how to exit in a polite way. We have tips and strategies on how to handle that.”

The GriefShare lessons include a video, open discussion, and a workbook. Week to week, they are self-contained.  “Anybody can jump in at any time, Serrano says. “You can cycle through multiple times.” Some people start, take a break, and then come back. “Whatever they feel they are ready to handle,” is fine, she says.

GriefShare groups are all over; many of the people who attend Serrano’s at Calvary Chapel are from outside the area. She says many people feel better able to share more openly when they are out of their everyday community: “They preserve anonymity. When they are sharing about a loss, it feels safer. They are able to be more open, able to process better, and are more receptive to counsel. Grief has a tendency to resurrect many unresolved issues.”

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