There are two main reasons many people have difficulties with grief and depression around the holidays.
Saoirse Charis-Graves, a retired child psychologist who worked for Jefferson County Public Schools for 27 years, said the two reasons are unrealistic expectations — that things will be wonderful this time of year — and if the holiday season is the first after a life-changing event, such as a divorce, a death or even moving from one place to another.
Everyone faces grief in a different way, but there are some coping mechanisms Charis-Graves recommends that can help both the grieving and healing processes.
Coping mechanisms include keeping a routine as much as possible, keeping things calm and simple for oneself, get enough sleep but not too much, exercise, eat nutritious meals, do not rely on caffeine or alcohol as a coping mechanism because they can exacerbate the problem and maintain connections and contact with friends and family.
It is even normal for people who are not directly affected by an event to still feel grief through an empathetic response, she said. For example, it is normal for residents of Colorado to feel grief about the tragic shooting that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“If you are a parent of a 6-year-old and you live here, you can only imagine, and by imagining you can be traumatized,” said Charis-Graves, one of the first responders to provide counseling to students following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
“People don’t understand this if you’re not directly involved. Maybe there’s been another loss in your life, in your history and this kind of triggers your neurological pathways that are associated with loss and grief. When you imagine losing your own child, you may end of crying inconsolably. You might think you’re crazy, but you’re not. It’s triggered something deep in you.”
Helping children learn to grieve
While adults are grieving over the recent tragedy or another loss in their family, it’s important they remain calm around their children because they pick up on the emotions of the household, she said.
“Listening with a child is probably the number one thing you can do,” she said. “You don’t want to project on to them … Maximize the time you spend with them, minimize the time you turn them over to media. You don’t know what they’re seeing and making of it.”
It is important to talk to children and explain events to them. Explain it to them in a way that is age-appropriate. It is also effective to ask them what they already know, so as not to overwhelm them with information that isn’t necessary, Charis-Graves said.
Spending more time with children, especially around bedtime, and just talking and listening to how they feel can help children cope as well. And, during times of grief, parents must ensure to take care of themselves and address their emotions as well as their child’s.
“If you’re an adult responsible for a child, it’s super important you take care of your health and wellbeing,” she said. “It’s just like in the airplane when they say put your mask on and then help your child. You have to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and not getting too stressed so you can be the best possible support for your child.”
Sometimes, though, the symptoms of grief don’t wane as time goes on as they typically do. Instead, if they actually increase, it may be reason to be concerned.
“Anxiety, they’re not having a normal reaction that’s out of line for them, it’s out of line for what’s usual,” Charis-Graves said.
“Sometime you know without knowing that you know. People who are depressed isolate. They have trouble sleeping, eating, maintaining a regular routine.”
While these are often typical signs of the grieving process, the intensity and longevity of the symptoms is what is important is realizing there may be a larger issue at hand. Everyone’s grieving process is different though, Charis-Graves said. Some people might grieve immediately and move on in a few months, while others might seem fine at first and then a few months later their grief kicks in.
If someone’s grief seems to last a long time or doesn’t seem to get better with time, it may be time to seek professional help, which is important to receive when needed, despite stigmas, Charis-Graves said.