HealthyU:Grieving During the Holiday Season

Mental Health: A Balancing Act — Grieving during the holiday season

Las Cruces Sun-News; Satya P. Rao, 12/01/2013


Experiencing the loss of a loved one to suicide is excruciatingly painful. This loss and the associated grief take on an added burden and a more "raw" emotional feel during the holidays.


Often, those left behind, instead of looking forward to the holiday season, experience myriad emotions, stress and uncertainty about how to continue their grieving process and yet feel connected and find moments of joy and pleasure. The holidays may remind them of the good times and togetherness they had experienced in the past with their loved one. They may wonder about what they could be thankful for or how to celebrate while they feel such immense loss, grief, sadness and loneliness after the suicide.

Despite the passage of time, many surviving families still have no answers about the suicide death and for the first time they find themselves in the midst of a holiday season without the one they loved.

The key is balance. Balancing the demands of the holiday season with the grieving process is difficult and needs advance preparation, specific plans of action and ways to seek support and assistance when needed.

I remember how difficult the first holiday season was for me. I began to feel a dread in the month of October because I knew November and December were not too far away. The dread was filled with the fear and anticipation of what might happen during the holidays. Looking back, I realized that I had created a cocoon that I filled with my own erroneous assumptions and imagination.

Many things and people helped during that first year, and I began to incorporate the lessons I'd learned - the advice I got from those who had experienced this kind of grief before I had - and I journeyed back into reality. As the years went by, I learned to rely more on my own instincts and decisions to strike a balance between the sadness I felt and the holiday cheer.

During that first year after Mike's suicide, what helped me the most to find balance was surrounding myself with people who loved and supported me. Those people allowed me to experience all of the emotions I felt - sadness, anger, grief and also joy - and to avoid completely isolating myself from people and activities.

In the years that followed, I began to learn to set realistic and honest expectations of myself, began to get involved in community activities that helped others and began creating new traditions that honored the old, but that were mine and comforting to me.

I also began to recognize that people around me cared about me and that I could learn to trust them and build friendships and relationships again that were based on mutual respect and compassion.

Most importantly, I learned through the years after the suicide that balancing the grief became easier during the holiday season, as I began to work through my fear and distrust of the hustle and bustle of the holidays and allowed myself to join the throngs of happy people everywhere.

Satya P. Rao, Ph.D., MCHES is an associate professor, undergraduate program coordinator and the interim graduate public health certificate program coordinator in the Department of Public Health Sciences at New Mexico State University. Her research and community outreach work focuses on mental health and substance use and abuse issues, as well as suicide prevention. She may be reached at or 575-635-6265. She may also be contacted for information about support groups for adult family members who have lost loved ones to suicide.

Helpful books

• "The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions," by Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. De Vries.

• "How will I get through the holidays? 12 Ideas for those whose loved one has died," by James E. Miller.

• "Healing your holiday grief: 100 Practical Ideas For Blending Mourning and Celebrations During The Holiday Season," Alan D. Wolfelt.