Getting Back Into the Spirit : Experts say that those who are mourning during the holidays should accept their loss. But they can also take steps to reclaim the season.


Christmas is just two days away, and while it seems that everyone around her awaits the holiday with a sense of joyous anticipation, Elena wishes it could all be over.

She's been depressed since Thanksgiving and has felt so exhausted lately that she barely manages to make it through the day. All she can think about as the holidays approach is the death several months ago of her favorite grandfather.

Elena is 46, and this will be her first Christmas without the man who was, in many ways, the Santa Claus of her life. She feels lost and empty and quietly resents friends and neighbors who are dashing off to parties, baking cookies and decorating their homes. Their good cheer only makes her feel worse.

Gary, 30, knows how she feels. A week before Thanksgiving, his girlfriend learned she was being transferred to San Francisco. But Jody dropped an even bigger bomb that night when she told Gary she needed time to think about their relationship.

Gary feels abandoned, angry and incredibly lonely. This would have been their fourth Christmas together at her parents' cabin in Big Bear, and he aches at the thought of not being there.

Elena and Gary are not alone. Millions of Americans will face this Christmas without a special loved one who, because of death or the dissolution of a relationship, will be absent from their holiday celebration for the first time.

And that, says marriage, family and child counselor Craig Coffin, is bound to stir feelings of sadness, pain and loss.

"The holidays are the most emotionally charged time of the year," says Coffin, who practices in Laguna Beach. "Sights, sounds and smells trigger memories of good times you've shared over the years with people you love. And when those memories include someone who's no longer around, that loss hurts. That's to be expected--it's perfectly normal and appropriate. The question becomes whether you want your pain to overshadow your holiday. There are steps one can take to help ease the hurt."

Coffin says the first step in reclaiming the spirit of the season is to accept that your first Christmas without your loved one is going to feel and be different.

"Different doesn't have to mean bad," he points out. "All it means is that it won't be like it once was."

Among the strategies Coffin suggests for reclaiming the joy of the holidays after experiencing a loss:

Mourn the loss and celebrate the life of the person you miss.

"Don't deny your feelings of loss by pretending that everything is OK," Coffin says. "Mourning is a process, and there may be times when it overlaps the holidays. When that happens, the mourning process may be even more intense.

"By celebrating the wonderful qualities of the person who's gone," Coffin adds, "you can remember and feel the joy and warmth they brought to your life. There are lots of ways to help yourself do that. For one person, it might be as simple as taking a snapshot of the person out of a photo album, buying a frame for it and displaying it on a shelf or table. For someone else, it might mean sitting by the Christmas tree one night with a cup of hot cider and writing a letter to the person you miss."

Coffin says he knows of one family that dealt with the death of the father last Christmas in a very open, loving way.

"As they sat down to Christmas dinner, one of the sons raised a toast to his father," he says. "He talked briefly about how much he missed his dad, but then he focused on great holiday memories they'd shared over the years.

"At first, Coffin says, everyone in the family--especially the mother--was misty-eyed.

"But once he told a funny story about watching his father try to ice skate, everyone started to chuckle. Before long, everyone at the table, including the mother, was telling funny 'Dad stories' and laughing. It was very healing. The family hadn't felt that close--or had that much fun together--since the father died eight months earlier."

Break tradition.

Who says Christmas dinner has to be the standard feast of turkey or ham that you and your ex-husband or ex-wife always shared? Why play that Christmas album your recently deceased sister really loved, when all it does for you is stir sad memories?

Not Coffin, who says a break from tradition can be healthy and healing.

"The world won't stop spinning if you decide to celebrate Christmas this year in a less traditional way," he says. "If this is the first Christmas since your mother passed away, going to your mother's house and making the traditional dinner might not be what you really want to do. If you express your hesitation with those you'll be sharing Christmas with, you may find they're feeling the same way."

Such a move can be risky, Coffin warns, because some people cling to traditions for a sense of continuity. But it's a risk Coffin encourages his clients to take.

"So what if it's just a few days before Christmas? If you call the people you'll be celebrating Christmas with and suggest something fun and entirely different, you may be surprised how willing they are to go along with it. Instead of sitting in a house filled with memories, a day at Disneyland or a gourmet picnic at the beach allows all of you to experience the spirit of Christmas in a whole new way."

Make a concerted effort to connect with friends and make your needs known.

Coffin suggests that clients struggling with the holiday blues make a point to reconnect with several old friends or relatives they haven't talked with in a while.

"It's easiest to lose touch with people who know us best because we take them for granted," says Coffin. "And indeed, those are often the people who will be there for us if we just let them know we need some support. Call people you care about and let them know what's going on for you. Communicate honestly and directly, and ask for what you need.

"By reaching out, you're much more likely to get what you want. You're also likely to discover that the process of reaching out to an old friend will rekindle and strengthen your relationship with them in a truly intimate, powerful way."

Do something special for others.

Doing something for someone else not only helps boost self-esteem, Coffin says, but it also provides a valuable perspective on our own lives and problems.

"If you're sitting around the house feeling sorry for yourself because your marriage has crumbled and you're 'all alone,' it's easy to fall into the 'poor-me' mode," Coffin says. "But when you choose to get active and do something for others, it breaks the pattern and helps remind you that you're part of a larger community."

Coffin suggests spending some of the money you would have spent on your absent partner or relative on a donation to a local charity that offers direct services to people in need.

"Why not call Share Our Selves (in Costa Mesa) or the AIDS Services Foundation (in Irvine) and see if they still need anything for their Christmas gift-basket drives," Coffin suggests. "The feeling you get from doing something out of the goodness of your heart can cast a whole new light on the holidays."

Do something special for yourself.

"People tend to neglect their own needs during this time of year," Coffin says. "It's vital to your self-esteem, especially when you're struggling with the pain of loss, to take good care of yourself. Do something special. It could be something as simple and inexpensive as taking time for yourself to catch a matinee movie or take a walk along the beach. Or get a massage or a facial or a manicure."

Avoid looking at Christmas as an "all-or-nothing" proposition.

During the holidays, Coffin says, many people avoid doing things because they're fearful that their efforts won't measure up to their memories. Coffin warns that an "all-or-nothing" mentality can rob the season of simple pleasures.

"You don't have to do it all in order to have a meaningful holiday," he says. "If you don't feel like putting up a tree, maybe you can string some lights on a potted plant. If you don't feel like throwing your annual Christmas Eve party, scale it back and only invite your closest friends. You don't have to do it as you have in the past in order to have a good time."

Live in the present and accept that while someone you love may be gone, your life continues.

When people are feeling down about the loss of a love or a loved one, Coffin says, it's easy to invest a great deal of emotional energy in the past.

"When that happens, it's often at the expense of the present. Some people feel guilty having a good time, especially after someone they love has died. It's survivor's guilt."

Coffin urges those who have recently lost a loved one to ask themselves how the person they're mourning would want them to spend the holiday.

"Would they want you to be sad," he asks, "or would they want you to get on with your life? When you look at it from that point of view, it gets you out of the past and back into the present."

The bottom line, says Coffin, is to honor your emotions and to remind yourself that not every Christmas will be as painful as this one.

"Accept that this holiday season is different from those of the past, and know that your feelings of loss will eventually ease with time," he says. "Time heals all wounds. How long it takes is really up to you."

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