‘We’re all grieving something’
Allow yourself a break handling holidays
By BURTON COLE
We’re all familiar with holiday stress. Baking, cleaning, parties, shopping, more parties, card writing, cleaning again, more shopping, run, run, run. Did you make all your lists and check them thrice?
It’s been a predictable routine — until now.
A global coronavirus pandemic has layered in more disruption, isolation and grief than most have faced before during the hectic late-November through early-January season of holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and New Year’s.
The virus might even slam the brakes on the social aspect of the season, changing plans for running everywhere to going nowhere.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation health tracking poll in October, two-thirds of the public are worried they or their family will get sick from the coronavirus, up 13 percentage points since April. On top of that is the added fear of passing the virus on to family and friends.
“We’ve had to really adapt to a lot of unknowns. That’s scary for a lot of people,” Dr. Sarah Momen, a psychiatrist at Trumbull Regional Medical Center, said.
“There have been a lot of changes, obviously, this year. It’s a big impact on mental health,” Momen said. “We’ve seen a lot more depression, anxiety, substance abuses, and seen more suicides.”
Human beings were made to be in contact with others. Having people around us is what gives us purpose, she said.
Holidays generally mean family get-togethers, which is why celebrations can be so difficult for people grieving the death of a loved one. There’s a hole in the heart where there should be a body in a chair at the table.
In 2020, that’s been compounded. Most gatherings that haven’t already been canceled are scaled back.
“It doesn’t make any difference if we had a loved one die or not — we’re all grieving something,” Sister Pat Fesler, Humility of Mary grief support specialist for Higgins-Reardon Funeral Homes, said. “People are sadder. And people in facilities are beyond sad.”
People in nursing homes have lost visitors, entertainment and group activities.
“They don’t have anyone to talk to except staff, and we all know staff is busy,” she said. “They can talk on the phone, but they have nobody to sit there with to play a game or put a puzzle together.”
Fesler said that all of her adult counseling groups and a number of individuals are adopting nursing homes to make sure residents at least get gifts and cards.
“Send thinking-of-you cards, notes, phone calls, pick up a dinner for someone. When you go to the grocery store, call them and make sure they have everything they need. Sometimes that flower gift is all that is needed to bring a smile,” she said.
“All the rest of us are hurting. We have to be able to have a friend that we can reach out to and talk to,” Fesler said. “Every single one of us now have hearts that are breaking and crying and searching; please don’t do it alone. Somehow through all of this, we are going to become stronger and more faithful.”
UGLY MASK PARTIES
Being concerned about keeping family safe means things like following COVID-19 guidelines such as keeping gatherings small and wearing masks.
But it doesn’t mean you have to pretend nothing’s changed.
“It’s OK to express your feelings about that. It’s weird,” Momen said. “It’s OK to express that and make fun of it. That’s a great coping skill.”
Perhaps instead of hosting an ugly sweater party, this year, put on an ugly mask party, she said.
Keep the kids connected.
Katy Hopkins, a pediatric psychologist with Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky., said, “If parents are struggling with their mental health during the holidays, kids are likely to be impacted by that.
“There is so much ambiguity about when things will get back to normal, and kids don’t necessarily handle that well,” she Hopkins said. “If you can start to talk with your family now about the fact that the holidays are going to be different this year, you can start to make plans to make sure it’s a year to remember in a special way.”
While the CDC warns that big gatherings are not safe this year, perhaps the feeling of one can be recreated by eating “together” or holding a pie contest or best-looking dessert competition over a videoconference, she said. Or play a game together with an online call. Be together although physically apart.
SILVER LININGS /
Momen, Fesler and other counselors advice looking for the silver lining.
Instead of running here and there all season, sit down and relax, Momen said. Take the opportunity to spend time with the ones who really are close to you.
“We might never get this time back,” she said.
“If you are the one who hosts all the parties, it’s a break. Enjoy it. Hone in on a skill you wanted to learn. You might never get this time back, so use it,” she said.
Learning new crafts also are excellent coping techniques, Fesler said.
She said she recently was introduced to 5D diamond painting kits, which she now recommends. It’s a five-dimensional form of painting that mixes traditional paint-by-number with resins or “diamonds” for special effects. “It’s one of the most relaxing things in the world.”
Other suggestions include starting an online book club with friends, drop off supplies to people who need them, schedule video chats and send uplifting cards and messages loved ones — especially those in care faculties or those isolating at home.
To help with dealing with isolation, write in a journal, Fesler said. “It helps to get our feelings out: ‘At this moment, I feel…’
“It’s very easy to sit in front of the TV day after day after day.” That’s not healthy. People tend to eat and gain weight, not get any exercise, and slip deeper and deeper into funks.
“Sometimes just doing meditation and take time with whomever your god is for you” is the best thing to do, Fesler said.
“In these times of pain, sickness, fear and so much unsettledness, we need to more than ever reach out to God. Maybe now more than ever find a prayer style that works for you and put it into place. Find a prayer partner that you can share with and pray with via the phone, text or email.”
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to make Christmas bigger than ever in your own home.
“Lower your expectations this year,” Momen said. “Keep it realistic. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Give yourself a chance to breathe.
Perhaps instead of filling the whole house with holiday cheer, decorate a single room, perhaps the one with the tree. “We can scale back a little bit,” she said. “Adjust traditions. A family evolves as it grows. It’s OK to adjust.”
You really don’t need a barrage of presents crowded under the tree, she said. A simple formula is three presents — “one thing they need, one thing they want and one thing to read.”
Or instead of wrapping more gifts, donate money or volunteer your time to charitable groups.
Fesler said, “This year, grief during the holidays really takes on a whole new look for everyone of us around the world. It affects those who are grieving not only the death of a loved one, but also any illness, including COVID-19, plus all those other things that we are dealing with that cause stressors in our life.
“Thinking about your holidays, what is of utmost importance? Only you know what that answer will be for you and your family. I feel the meaning of the holidays will be very real for each of us as we celebrate this year.
“Each of us needs to pause and ask ourselves, ‘What is the meaning of each holiday? What am I going to do differently?'” Fesler said.
Call family and friends, Momen said. Use videoconferencing. Take walks with people. Even six feet apart, just being with someone else helps tremendously.
“Even though we’re supposed to be in isolation mode, it doesn’t have to be that you can’t reach out,” she said.
And anyone who has pre-existing conditions such as depression and anxiety, keep up with treatments, from counseling to medications, Momen said. “All those resources are still available. It’s not an excuse to stop.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
There is no magic bullet to make stress disappear forever, but we can take steps to reduce stress. Ann Marie O’Brien, R.N., national director of health engagement strategies at UnitedHealthcare, shares the following tips that may reduce your stress and lead to a more enjoyable holiday season:
• Learn to recognize your holiday stress triggers and relievers.
Financial pressures and personal demands are two common triggers. Also, beware of unhealthy stress relievers. Holiday stress may cause some people to fall into bad habits such as smoking, drinking or eating too much.
• Give yourself a break.
While doing things for others, it’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves. If you feel stress building up, take a break for a few minutes. Listening to calming music, taking time to watch a movie, or just getting away to take a brief walk can give you time to unwind and recharge.
• Make time for your health.
In the holiday rush, don’t let your well-being fall by the wayside. Try to stay on your normal sleep schedule, incorporate healthy foods and get regular exercise. If you can’t find a 30-minute chunk of time for exercise, break it up into three 10-minute sessions spread throughout the day.
• Check your health plan benefits.
Some insurers offer behavioral health care programs that can range from caring for your mental health to treatment for substance abuse, with a goal of helping improve your overall wellbeing.
• Enjoy, even if it’s virtually.
In the flurry of holiday activities, we sometimes forget what we’re celebrating, so remember to savor the time with people you love. If you or others you know are unable to meet in person, use a phone or set up a Zoom call to celebrate and spend time together. It’s important to minimize any feelings of isolation.
• Talk to your doctor.
If it feels like you’re not able to get a handle on your stress, talk to your doctor. She or he may recommend a counselor who could help you find other ways to help reduce or manage the unhealthy stress in your life.
For more health and wellness information, visit UHC.com.