Whether you have lost a child to cancer or your child is undergoing cancer treatment, the upcoming holiday season will not be typical of the holidays you have experienced in the past. It is important and extremely helpful to acknowledge that simple fact so you can cope ahead. Coping ahead helps prevent us from being blindsided by our grief.
We can cope ahead by anticipating which situations may be difficult and preparing what we will say or how we will act in these moments to reduce our vulnerability to intense emotions and manage our emotions most effectively. The following tips will help you cope ahead this holiday season.
Anticipate Heightened Emotions
For many of us, this time of year presents as a dialectic. A dialectic teaches us that two things that seem like opposites can both be true and exist at the same time. While the holiday season may be a time of joy, celebration, and getting together with loved ones, it can also bring about intense emotions of grief such as numbness, anger, sadness, and irritation. Allow yourself the full range of these emotions without avoiding your feelings. This year tell yourself that it is understandable that you will feel many emotions and give yourself the permission to respond to those emotions as you see fit. Appropriate responses may include declining an invitation to an annual function, spending time alone, or pushing through when there may be positive outcomes to being with people you love. Decide if you want to keep certain holiday traditions or create new ones. Plan in advance how you want to spend your time and with whom. Coping ahead may be reviewing your holiday schedule and determining which traditions and gatherings are important to you and your family and which ones you plan to decline or eliminate this year. Coping ahead would also include preparing and practicing your response to invitations. For example, you may simply decline an invitation. No further explanation is required.
Recognize Situations Which May Trigger Intense Emotions
It is not hard to imagine the situations that may be particularly triggering. They may be times when you will be seeing certain people for the first time in a while. It may also be with people who often say things that cause us distress. Visualizing the situation and imagining what might happen or what might be said allows us to prepare and plan for those awkward and hurtful moments. If there is a certain family member who always tries to find the “silver lining” or tells us we need to choose to be happy or hopeful, it would be best to plan for that encounter and cope ahead with how we would handle those situations.
Set Realistic Expectations
Give yourself a break this year. Cope ahead by asking for help. If you usually host during the holidays, ask someone else to take over this year. Let friends and family know that you and your family may not attend everything this year and/or may leave early if things feel too stressful. Discuss with your family ways that the holidays may be different for everyone this year.
Take Care of Yourself
Cope ahead by making sure to plan time for self-care. Taking care of our physical, emotional, and spiritual self will help us be more resilient during the holiday season. Good self-care also protects us from increasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Practice healthy eating, regular exercise, good sleep hygiene, prayer and/or mindfulness practices, and appropriate medical check-ups.
Self-Soothe and Distract
Plan times when you can take a break from grief and the stress of the holidays. Cope ahead by making a list of activities that will distract you, even momentarily, from the realities of treatments, loss and the expectations of the holidays. This list may include distractions such as a movie, coffee with a good friend, or listening to your favorite music. A self-soothing list may include a run, massage, or a hot bath. Cope ahead by pre-planning and scheduling these activities otherwise they will not happen regularly enough.
Cope ahead by researching and understanding the signs of depression. Promise yourself that you will reach out for help if you see these signs during the holidays. An excellent way to cope ahead is to research and know where you will go or who you will call if you recognize depression symptoms. Discuss this with your spouse or a close family member or friend and hold each other accountable.
Recognize the Good
It is often hard to see anything beyond our grief. Coping ahead to help yourself temper grief and increase your resilience may include naming three things that went well at the end of each day. Another option may be to list three things that we are grateful for each morning. Including the whole family in this practice may help with surviving the holiday season and who knows, it may become a new family tradition.
By Carleen Newsome, LPC, CPCS, ACS
Clinical Director at The Summit Counseling Center