During a normal year, the holidays can accentuate grief, mental health experts say, largely due to the emphasis on spending time with family or reflecting on memories. But during the second holiday season in a pandemic, that grief is compounded for many people.
This week, the News + Record spoke with Ashleigh Glover, Chatham Counseling & Wellness’ co-founder and psychotherapist, about grief — why it intensifies for many people during the holidays, strategies for coping with it and ways to help grieving friends and family.
Located in Siler City, Chatham Counseling & Wellness opened in November 2020 and is still accepting new clients. Glover received her Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Campbell University, Bachelor of Social Work degree from Campbell University and an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice from Alamance Community College. Prior to her career as a licensed counselor, she was a social worker for child protective services for five years and now specializes in treating clients with depression and anxiety through the use of cognitive behavioral therapy.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Holidays are like the memories of the good times, and the togetherness that we’ve kind of had, and they kind of remind us of our loss — it can be very triggering. That time with your grandparents or with your parents, you have this expectation, and then they’re taken away, and they’re not there anymore. So that in itself can just serve as a reminder of our loss, the holiday itself. Sometimes the anticipation of the holiday can be more daunting than the holiday itself — just like, “Oh, gosh, you know, it’s going to be Christmas without my parents for the first time, without my child” or whoever, whatever that loss might be.
And watching others who are feeling thankful when we’re celebrating these holidays can be really hard, like, “Why am I not feeling this way? What is wrong with me?” And just to know that there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with being overwhelmed or sad or lonely — those are all very normal experiences and human experiences. Sometimes, we’re looked at like we have to celebrate and we have to do this and we’re not living up to those expectations, but it’s OK to create some boundaries for yourself and participate in what you want to participate in and feel up to doing. It’s OK to say “no” and to take care of yourself.
That part of it is hard, like figuring out how to say no to going to a Christmas eve dinner where you’re not feeling up to your best and you’re feeling sad and you’re having all the feelings, like, it’s OK to take yourself out and say, “You know what, I’m just going to go hang out with a friend, or I’m going to go walk in the park, or I’m going to stay in my bed and it’ll be OK.” So, I think that is important.
Some people find comfort in the traditions, and other people find them really painful. What do you do during those times and how do you reflect and celebrate the loss of a loved one, because I think that’s very important, too. The person grieving may not be ready for that, but they can be ready in their own way. And when they are ready, because at one point, they’re going to become ready — because that’s how the cycle of grief works — keeping that person’s memory alive and not burying it but celebrating them even more. Maybe even lighting a candle in honor of them, or going to visit them at the gravesite, you know, bringing them in instead of pushing it out. As hard as it is, how do you pull it closer to you and embrace their memory and try to keep that alive?
Christmas this year, during a pandemic — again, for the second time, we’ve had to deal with this — it’s just like oh my God, with Omicron and all the things, it’s like, how do you take care of yourself, keep yourself healthy and put yourself first — really focusing on that self care aspect? Are you making sure that you’re safe and that you’re healthy? And are you getting your vaccinations? Are you taking care of yourself so that you can be there for others and be there as a support person for somebody else that might be grieving? So really, I think, this year during the second Christmas of the pandemic it’s taking care of yourself, putting a lot into self care, making sure that your cup is full, and how to refill when your cup gets depleted. I think that that’s the most important thing to remember during the second year of COVID.
I think that allowing yourself to feel, whatever that is. It’s OK to feel joy, it’s OK to feel sadness, it’s OK to feel anger, it’s OK to allow yourself to grieve. It’s important to remember that everybody’s grief experience is unique, and so everybody has different needs when celebrating the holiday, and there’s no right or wrong answer.
Experiencing that joy and that laughter does not mean that you’ve forgotten the person that you love; it doesn’t mean that any of that is going away. Sometimes people can feel a lot of guilt associated with, “I’m not allowed to be happy, because my mom’s not with me anymore. I shouldn’t feel this. I should be sad.” But it’s kind of like taking a step back and saying, as cliche as it sounds, “What would my mom want?” And truly embracing it and saying that it’s OK to feel a gamut of emotions, and acknowledging the feelings and trying not to avoid them.
I see that with a lot of male clients; they’re much more closed and much more guarded and they kind of bury all these feelings inside. So how do we acknowledge those feelings and pull those feelings out and say it’s OK to talk about them? And to talk to somebody, whether it’s a close person, a friend or a co-worker, to have a person that you can call and talk to, and just be able to get all these positive and negative feelings out during the holidays, because both of them exist.
And knowing that feelings can coexist and that’s OK, that it’s OK to kind of find that balance to have those times, but if you’re feeling like the sadness is not going away, that it’s lingering, that you’re losing interest in things and that the grief is really taking a turn and you’re going through some depression then it’ll be time to seek help from a professional at that point, and be able to recognize what is just grief and sadness versus true depression.
I think that the one thing that you can really do is help them to keep their memories present. Do they feel comfortable talking about the death or even the memories of the person? It kind of comes in waves, and it depends on how close the death was and it really depends on where that person is at, but meet that person where they’re at. Just an ear to listen and to be there and to hold someone’s hand and to say, “You know what, it’s OK and I’m here for you,” and just be an ear. We don’t always need unsolicited advice. We don’t always need somebody to tell us how to feel better. We just want them to listen to us.
It’s important to be understanding, too. If you’ve had someone in your family that’s experienced a loss, don’t be upset with him because they cancel holiday plans. And for whoever is kind of suffering that loss, to want to be there to support them the best you can, whether that is a phone call, checking in with them, inviting them out or checking in on them one-on-one.
It’s also important to know who your audience is, and who you’re talking to. Sometimes bringing up God may not be the best thing at that moment. To say, “You can lean on God,” when they’re saying, “Well, God took my mom away, why do I want to lean on God?” could be very triggering for a person who may not have the same beliefs or who may have that belief, and they may be doubting it at that moment. People mean well by that — there’s no doubt in my mind — but it’s important to be very sensitive to that because telling them to lean on God when they think God just took their loved one away is not the best answer. If they are leaning into the belief of God and leaning into that, then absolutely be there to support with that message. But as far as telling them to go to church or to pray about it, or those kinds of things, you may be missing the mark with that.
Some people absolutely find comfort in God and Christian counseling and leaning on God and their faith through the grieving process. If that’s what brings your soul peace, and you can find that kind of that refuge in prayer, then I think that would be a good way to start healing and start doing that if that’s part of your life, but there’s no right or wrong way to way to go into it — it’s just whatever you personally believe.
Everybody wants to be cared for. And I think that feeling is really important when we’re talking about grief and caring, and truly being a support. One of the best things that’s ever helped for so many of my clients is helping others, like volunteering to do something charitable during the time — helping others will lessen your sadness, and it’ll bring joy to someone else’s face to really be out there and to be able to do that.
Everyone experiences grief differently. Sure, we have the stages of grief, but to know that you might feel angry some days, and you might feel sad some days, and you might feel relieved some days, and you might feel happy some days, and to know that it’s a cycle, and it doesn’t go in any particular order is very important. Find comfort in others and be able to talk about what you’re going through, because all of us have experienced grief and death in some way. It’s important to really be able to share that and to share your story, because you never know when your story is going to help someone else.
I think it’s so important because so many times we feel isolated and we feel like there’s no one there to understand. Sometimes you’re the voice that needs to be there to say, “I know, I went through this too and this is what I did and I’m here for you.”
As we’ve discussed, it’s important to share the feelings that you are having, like, do you have a support person that you can kind of lean on? I think that to take that isolation away, you need to take the loneliness away and find someone — whether that’s a therapist, whether that’s a friend, whether it’s a family member — we need to take that loneliness away, so you don’t feel so isolated, and find someone that you’re comfortable with sharing what you’re going through. I think that is important, because it is sensitive and it’s intimate, and you feel like people might judge you, like people might not understand. If you feel like that person is going to judge you, and they’re not going to understand, then they’re not your person to be able to talk to.
And it’s such a fine line between grief and depression, and we see the grief turn into depression all the time. We want to prevent it from going to that next level, and I think that the best thing to do is talk about your feelings and be able to express them.
I tell my clients — and people in general, you know — you know yourself better than anyone else. So you know when you’re not getting better, and I think that it’s time to, whenever you’re not starting to feel better, to reach out and find even a professional to kind of help navigate that.
The holidays can be a tough time for anyone. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.
We do see suicide rates climb as the holidays approach and through the holidays suicide do increase, and so I think it’s very important to not shy away from that. And it is scary for someone to say, “I’m feeling suicidal, I’m feeling so sad that I don’t want to live here anymore.” You hear these stories and are chilling, but it’s so important to say, “I see you, and I hear you, and we’re going to get you some help.”
There’s just no right or wrong way to approach the holiday season after a loss. If you do experience happiness, allow it to enter your grief space, allow that happiness to enter and don’t shy away from it and keep their memories alive. There’s so many different things that you could kind of do to do that, whether it’s planning a meal with your loved one’s favorite food, or playing their favorite music or playing a game that they always used to play. But if that’s too hard, then there’s things that you could do to kind of exclude that; some people find it too painful because it’s too close and they’re not in that space yet.
Glover’s clinic is located in downtown Siler City at 123 E. Raleigh Street. You can reach the clinic by phone at 984-265-8505.
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