Dr. Christina Edmondson: Coping with Loss During the Holidays

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dr. christina edmondson talks about coping with loss to get through the holidays

Can you already smell that turkey, dressing, or sweet potato pie? Are you excited about a chance to travel and reconnect this season? T’is the season to be jolly, or is it? Unfortunately, for many, the holidays are a time of overt or implicit avoidance, seeping sadness, or unshakeable anger and anxiety. Why?  While there are a host of reasons for the holiday blues, issues related to our family can cause significant distress. Let’s consider two family-related reasons and some strategies to help put the happy back in our holidays.


Those who are Missing from the Table


Families are filled with traditions and no time like the holidays demonstrates this very thing. What are we left to do when grandma’s house, the meeting space for our family fellowship, no longer has grandma there? We want to see and embrace our deceased loved one, be comforted by their presence, and inform them about what is happening in our world. We cannot because they are gone and it feels like with them a piece of our heart and identity are also missing.  The holidays amplify the grief that is fresh or somewhat dormant regarding a lost loved one.


While death is the most unchanging culprit that takes away our loved ones, there are other reasons for empty dinner table seats. For instance, the missing spouse, who is now the “ex,” the prodigal child who is lost and “out there”, or even the relatives that just cannot make it this season due to illness but most likely financial constraints. This season, at its best, creates and showcases the best of our family narrative. However, for some, what seems like an “unsootheable” sadness meets them day to day. I would suggest just a couple of ways to meet the challenge concerning those missing from the table.


Missing Loved Ones Tip #1: Prepare for the Pain


When you go running you wear the right shoe, right? Just like running for the first time in a long time can be painful, grueling and never-ending, entering the holiday season with grief can feel the same way. Nevertheless, like with running, it gets better–especially when we prepare for the pain. What might that look like? For some of us, it includes posting scriptures on our fridge that remind us of that in our weakness God reveals His strength. Also, instead of not mentioning our lost love one, we may fully embrace their memory by incorporating a time when we share a sweet memory about the person. For those who are missing from the table for unsavory or conflict-filled reason, we might intentionally remember them in our private and communal prayers as we ask for reconciliation, forgiveness and love as the foundation of our family. Hiding when something hurts never helps, but preparing for the pain and giving yourself permission to feel is a good start to this emotional season.


Missing Loved Ones Tip #2: Ask for What you Need


I am a big believer in asking for what you need. Being secluded and aloof during times of grief are not a healthy option. Give a holiday heads-up to a couple of loved ones about the difficulties ahead. When they check on you, don’t meet them with cliché’ or cookie cutter statements like “I’m fine” if that’s a lie. We are not meant to live life alone. We are social beings and are designed to need each other. Now that you have your no-matter-what-check-on-me-team, use them. One of my close friends who lost her mother a few years ago plans a small get together during significant holidays. This keeps her busy, focuses her temporarily on giving to others, and surrounds her with warmth. Avoid isolation and advocate for your emotional health.


Missing Loved Ones Tip #3: Purpose to Enjoy


For some folks, the guilt of not feeling more “torn-up” about an empty chair can cause them to reject the enjoyment of this time of the year altogether. It is a good thing to feel some relief from grief and loss. Be on guard against avoiding laughter, embracing new people, and traditions out of loyalty to someone who is longer here. Our loved ones would want us to live while we live.  Smile, laugh, and embrace a full range of emotions. We all express emotions in different ways. You don’t need to look “broken” to prove your love to a missing loved one or send the message to other family member’s about your loyalty. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, purpose to enjoy this season.


So far, we have talked about those who you wish were at the table. Lets switch gears and talk some about those well, frankly, you wish were at another table altogether.


Those who are Not Missing from the Table


Does your family have difficult folks in it? People like that cousin who “plays too much”, the aunt who compares you to her “perfect daughters”, or the sister or brother whose issues absorb all the space in the room.  As you are reaching for your second plate of “Turkey Day” helpings, does your mom remind you about the gym membership she got you, hint, hint?  For those who are single, get ready for those nagging questions about your personal life like “when are you getting married?” Nothing says not-so-happy holidays like inappropriate questions, relived childhood traumas, and making nice with “frenemy” family members. Here are some ways to prep for family member boot camp:


Difficult Loved Ones Tip #1: Bring a Buffer


That’s right, I said it! I believe that friends are the family you pick. Many of us have a host of “play cousins” and aunts to exemplify this very thing. Bringing along one or two good friends may help keep some of the inappropriate themes at bay. And if not, at least you have a witness to your family’s shenanigans. It’s important that you bring someone who has your best interests at heart. Don’t worry about feeling embarrassed by your family, because after all, everyone has some “characters” in their family tree.


Difficult Loved ones Tip #2: Have an Escape Plan  


Your buffer can come in handy for this as well. They can serve as a ready excuse to leave and get some air. Also, scheduling multiple holiday drop-ins can give you just the right portion of holiday family joy. Remember to bring some Tubberware, your buffer, and a tank of gas because it’s hard to shoot a moving target.


Difficult Loved ones Tip #3: Expect and Give the Best


It’s easy for us to make caricatures out of our loved ones, but the truth is people can and do change. Are you open to seeing and affirming that new and improved cousin, the one who normally drives you crazy? Expecting people to treat you well sends a signal that you are to be respected.  Also, it frees you to give your best. Being on guard and “getting them before they get you,” robs you of the opportunity to enjoy the moment you are blessed to live.  You also may be unwittingly creating a spot for yourself on someone else’s “frenemy” family member list. How tragic would that be? Becoming like the person who disrespects or annoys you, it is a lose-lose. Expect and give the best!


I hope these ideas get you thinking and may be even help this season. Moreover, I pray that you and your family experience a blessed and bountiful holiday season. Even with missing or wish-they-were-missing family members, we have much to be thankful for.


Christina H. Edmondson, PhD, LLP is a psychologist, college instructor and speaker. Although, much of her time and love are spent being a full-time wife and a mother of two. Please send family and relationship topics that you would like to hear about to drchristinaedmondson@gmail.com or visit drchristinaedmondson.wordpress.com. 



12 Comment

  1. Great article – thanks!
    Miss seeing you all! Trust you have a wonderful holiday season!

  2. This article was right on. I have had traumas reemerged over the past month regarding a few heart breaking life events,& the holidays aren’t easy. Everything you highlighted will help me deal with the holiday season in an emotionally & psychological way. God Bless you & happy holidays to you & family.


  4. Hi Dr. Edmondson, I stumbled across your article from a twitter feed … My wife of 28 years left me 3 years ago and this is the third holiday season w/o my family being a family. Personally, I feel like I have been in solitary for 3 years but it is time to break out and live again. While I can relate to the “missing” family member to death as my father went to be with the Lord in 2006, I have to say, nothing compares to the emptiness of a family torn apart that was not of your doing or wanting. At least in death my dad had his homecoming and is in the presence of the the Almighty and although I miss him greatly, I know he would never leave or reject me or destroy my family. Not so with my wife, the pain of rejection and dissolution of your family is too horrible to wish on anyone and I have spent the better part of the last three years grieving, being angry, being bitter, asking God why, angry at God, and angry at myself for being so stupid. Our God is so gracious and loving though that even when we question His goodness and in a way turn away from Him, he NEVER turns away from us. He continues to be there, waiting, and loving us and teaching us what it truly means to forgive. I have been learning in the last several months how to truly forgive her and actually pray for God to bless her. Never thought I’d ever get to that point, but He has shown me that she is still His precious child and so am I, no matter what the outcome. I am beginning to see a future again and your admonition to “prepare and also give yourself permission to feel good” is right on. I am sure tired of feeling crappy at every holiday to be sure! I am looking forward to celebrating Christmas this year with my sons and making a conscious effort to celebrate all the good things God has given me, my health and my two incredible boys. Thank you for taking the time to post such a thoughtful article. Merry Christmas!

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