I am writing you to this week from snowy Omaha. I am finding that living in a place that has a true winter is bringing up memories from my childhood in Chicago. There is a feeling when you go outside in 10-degree weather that you just don’t get in North Carolina. The air smells different, the sky looks different, the cold goes through your clothes in a matter of minutes no matter how heavy your coat is, and not matter how little skin is exposed. It was not an all-together bad memory. I used to love going to the ice skating rink at the park each day after school. The thrill of skating took my mind off of the cold, or maybe as a child I was not as sensitive to the cold.
Wearing a heavy winter coat, I felt insulated and was less aware of where I was in space, less aware of others around me. All of these things remind me that associative memory is a strong phenomenon.
Associative memory plays a big part in the way grief appears during the holiday season.
Associative memory is when our memories are attached to something from a certain time in our past. It can be a food, a smell, a song, or an event, anything that reminds us of the past.
The smell of risotto cooking reminds me of my grandmother. The smell of Christmas trees reminds me of going out in the cold snowy weather and looking for a tree when I was a child. Seeing a snow village at Christmas time reminds me of Leah. She loved the ceramic town we had and she always arranged it. It is one of our Christmas traditions that we have not been able to resume since she has been gone.
The holiday season can be stressful on it own without the added layers of grief. Grief is a difficult emotion to describe because it is made up of so many other feelings such as sadness, anger, devastation, and so many more.
These feelings often show up in different intensities at different times.
What helps you cope one time may make you dissolve into tears the next. Having some skills, or some alternative traditions to draw on when you find yourself hit by intense feelings can help you to cope with the holidays. Here are a few that worked for me.
Take a look at your family traditions.
Are there any that feel too painful? Give yourself permission to do things differently or not at all this year. You may feel differently next year.
A change of scenery may help.
Traveling to a new destination can take you out of the familiar that may be too painful for you. You will still miss your loved one, and remember past holidays, however you will not be faced every day with constant associative memories that you are not ready to face, especially if your loss has been recent. Even if your loss has not been so recent, take care of your own needs. We still don’t put up a Christmas tree, and it has been 14 years.
Self-care is especially important during times of stress.
When I am feeling stress my grief becomes overwhelming. Give yourself some extra self-care this holiday season. I have suggested that you keep a list of things that nourish you, or give you pleasure. Take your list out now and look at it, is there anything you want to add? It is good to have this list handy when you do feel stressed or overwhelmed. You can choose something from your list without having to think of what you want to do when you are already feeling stress. Naps can be great stress relievers, as can mindlessly doodling.
Remember that grief changes with the seasons.
What worked this year may not work next year. There is no right or wrong way to meet your grief, no timetable on when you will begin to heal. Give yourself the time you need, honor your own process. Each member of your family will process grief in their own way too. You can let them know their way is ok, sometimes that is all that is needed, to know that however we are processing grief and wherever we are our grief journey is exactly right for us. That can be enough to allow us to relax a little and let the healing begin.