Dealing with Grief Triggers During Family Gatherings
The holidays are in full swing. Hanukkah has just finished and many children (and adults!) are counting the final days to Christmas. New Year’s Eve plans are being formed. Celebrations of all kinds are happening and with them come the potential emotional challenges for those carrying feelings of grief in this season. Understanding grief triggers and how they manifest during these times can be helpful in preparing your heart and mind for stressful situations. In this blog, we’ll define grief triggers and talk about how to manage grief triggers as well as provide strategies and insights to navigate grief and family events.
Understanding Grief Triggers
Grief triggers are simply sudden reminders of a person who died that cause powerful emotional responses. They can occur anytime after a death but sometimes happen more frequently around significant dates like holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Let’s look at some grief triggers that might pop up during family gatherings.
- Shared Memories: It’s evitable that as you gather with family and friends for a Christmas party or special meal, the conversation may turn to recollections of the deceased. Triggering memories of the lost loved one can be emotional, but that doesn’t have to mean they are unpleasant. Be vulnerable and know you don’t have to “keep it together” in front of people. Give yourself the freedom to feel whatever emotions you are feeling at that moment.
- Empty Spaces: The empty seat at the table or the absent stocking on the mantle could send you into a tailspin of grief. Mentally preparing for those moments can be helpful. You could also consider incorporating an In Memory Boxwood wreath to mark the empty spot and give you something tangible to touch.
- Family Dynamics: Depending on the loss and length of time, certain interactions could bring up difficult emotions tied to the loss. If the lost loved one acted as “the buffer” at times, it may be difficult knowing that dynamic has changed.
It’s important to keep tabs on how grief triggers may impact your emotional well-being. Triggering memories and difficult conversations can leave you feeling exhausted, lonely, and even fragile. Take things slow and leave lots of room for rest.
Strategies for Coping with Grief Triggers
This step is so important. Taking a few minutes to mentally prepare yourself ahead of the gathering can be invaluable for getting into a good headspace and being proactive, not reactive.
- Reflective Practices: Engage in mindfulness or journaling to process emotions beforehand. Schedule in some margin that day to take an inventory on your emotions and write out your fears or concerns - and how you might deal with them.
- Setting Boundaries: Establishing personal limits and communicating them respectfully to your host and family. That could mean a certain amount of time you plan to stay or letting them know you might not be ready to participate in the traditional gift exchange, but you’d love to watch others enjoy it.
Navigating During the Gathering:
You’ve created a mental game plan. Now it’s “go time.” Take a few deep breaths, say a prayer, recite a verse or mantra and walk up to the door. You’ve got this!
- Finding Support: Identifying allies or confidants at the gathering can be a lifeline. Having a trusted friend who can play interference with that nosy aunt or give you an encouraging hug beside the punch bowl when you need it most is a gift!
- Mindful Distractions: Engaging in activities or conversations that bring comfort or take your mind off the hard stuff is helpful. Is there a craft station for the younger guests? Sit yourself down and grab a Crayon. Does the host need help setting the table? Offer your services.
- Taking Breaks: Knowing when to step away for a moment of solitude is wise. Made it through the interrogation from that relative who doesn’t know when to stop? Grab a snack and head outside for fresh air and look up at the stars. Think of a funny story or a favorite memory of your loved one and take some breaths.
You made it! You teared up during the toasts and ate far too many mini quiches but you did it! You deserve some down time.
- Processing Emotions: Allow yourself time to reflect and process any triggered emotions. Think through answers to these questions. What was the hardest part? What did you expect to be difficult, but was actually okay? Who was extra supportive and how can you let them know how much that meant to you?
- Seeking Support: Consider therapy or talking to a trusted individual about the experience. Do you need extra support or a professional counselor to discuss your grief? If so, make it happen!
If you are walking alongside a child who is grieving a loved one, take a few minutes to read through this helpful resource for educators as well as family and friends.
Communication and Support
Communicating with family members and friends is important. Taking a few minutes to discuss the importance of open and honest communication about grief triggers can help avoid drama during a gathering. Seeking needed support is also key to a steady mental state.
- Expressing Needs: Articulate what helps and what may be challenging for you
- Creating a Supportive Environment: Encourage family members to be mindful and supportive in this season
- Seeking External Support: Consider professional help like therapy, counseling or support groups
A friend of mine lost her spouse last year in the fall. I reached out to ask how she managed to get through the holidays considering the loss was so fresh. She said she was so grateful to have family and friends surrounding her so that she wouldn’t feel as “lonely.” But she did note that her family didn’t always understand grief and expected her to be more cheerful than she felt. It’s an important reminder to keep the lines of communication open and understand what you are capable of handling.
Honoring the Memory
Our last blog explored “Holiday Remembrance Traditions to Start For Loved Ones.” Check it out for some ideas for ways to honor the memory of someone during family gatherings. Laurelbox offers a number of beautiful keepsake remembrance items that can be incorporated into old traditions or new ones. From lighting a candle to hanging ornaments together, there are a number of ways to honor and preserve their memory.
I actually turned a grief trigger into a holiday memento. Back in early 2016, I ordered monogrammed stockings for our then toddler Trey and our new baby boy Cooper, due in March. For whatever reason, they were backordered for months and arrived after we’d already lost Cooper at full term in the delivery room. Opening that package and seeing a sweet Christmas stocking for a baby who’d never be opening presents on this side of heaven sent me into a sobbing mess, I’ll admit. Grief trigger times 100. But as the years have passed and we’ve seen God’s hand even in the tragedy of losing our son, I put up Cooper’s stocking each year in his honor. If you are walking with fresh grief and can’t imagine a grief trigger becoming a welcomed albeit bittersweet memento, I promise, it can happen.
I turned a grief trigger into a cherished memento. Our son Cooper’s stocking hangs alongside the others every year to honor his memory.
We hope this blog gives you a sense of hope and strategy for how to cope with grief triggers. Death and family and grief are all challenging and combining them can be extra difficult! But having a plan can help give you a small sense of control that can relieve some stress and anxiety. A good reminder is err on the side of grace. Grace for yourself to grieve how you need to. Grace for friends and family who may disappoint you. Be honest and reach out to those you trust or professionals for extra support during this time of year to finish the year strong and whole - even as you navigate loss.
Lanna Britt was a national news producer in Washington DC for nearly a decade covering politics, breaking news and current events. She now lives with her husband and three children in Richmond VA. She has two sweet babies she’ll meet again in heaven.