The death of a close friend can be as painful as the death of a family member. But when the loss occurs right around the holidays, it can be especially hard.
In this Q & A, Robin Fiorelli, a national expert on grief and loss, offers some advice for coping with the death of a close friend. For the past decade, Robin has held the role of Senior Director of Volunteer and Bereavement Services at VITAS Healthcare in Miami. Much of her wisdom will be useful to individuals who are experiencing an major loss.
The loss of a close friend is often not treated with the same compassion as the loss of a relative. Could you speculate as to why this is so?
Kenneth Doka, a leading expert on grief counseling and therapy, uses the term “Disenfranchised Grief” when describing losses that are not “socially sanctioned” or recognized as significant by others. Friends, partners, neighbors and co-workers, are examples of individuals that sometimes experience disenfranchised grief.
When a friend dies, we often feel like we should mourn privately and allow the family and significant others to be in the forefront to receive condolences and support. The truth is, however, that the loss of a friend can be just as profound as the loss of a family member, and so friends deserve the same recognition for the loss as well as support to assist them through their grief journey.
Why are first anniversaries/or holidays after a loss so tough?
The holiday season can be very difficult for people who have experienced the death of a loved one. Memories of good times and being with others at the holidays only serve to remind us of our loss. Watching others who are celebrating when we feel overwhelmed, lonely or sad can be painful.
The holidays and other special days such as Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc., make us realize how much our lives have been changed by the loss of our loved one. Particularly during any special days in that first year after the loss, many bereaved face the task of having to develop new rituals and traditions without their loved one present.
The first step in coping with grief at the holidays is to acknowledge that the holiday season is difficult. It is helpful to prepare for it in advance by making specific plans and obtaining the support that is needed. Remember, too, that sometimes anticipation of a holiday can be more difficult than the arrival of the day itself.
The anniversary of the death can also be hard because often the mourner will re-experience the traumatic feelings and thoughts that occurred on the day their loved one or friend died. It is helpful, therefore, to plan for support in advance and to allow yourself to grieve in your own way, whether that is visiting the cemetery or other special place, or discussing your feelings with someone who can listen effectively and can share memories of your friend or loved one with you.
If a close friend was part of your holiday rituals, what can you do to ease the pain of a first holiday without him/her?
Some mourners find it helpful to modify an old holiday ritual or create a new tradition. It is helpful to discuss with your friends and family the activities you want to include or exclude this year.
Some examples of new rituals and traditions include:
- Create a memory box. You could fill it with photos of your friendor written notes from family members and friends, describing their favorite memory. Young children could include their drawings.
- Write a letter to your friend. Just because they are no longer here, doesn’t mean you lose a relationship- the relationship is still there.
- Light a candle in honor of your absent loved one or friend.
- Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
- Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
- Hold a moment of silence during a holiday toast to honor your loved one.
- Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.
- Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one.
- Write a poem about your loved one, and read it during a holiday ritual.
- Play your loved one’s favorite music or play his or her favorite game.
- Plan a meal with your loved one’s favorite foods.
Again, it is especially helpful to talk with a good listener about the memories you have with your friend. Perhaps talk about what the friendship meant to you, what you learned from your friend, what you miss about your friend and discuss the ways you made a difference in your friend’s life. Looking at photos of you and your friend can also be very cathartic.
The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one or friend. The best way to cope with this first holiday season or anniversary is to plan ahead, set reasonable expectations, get support from others and practice good self-care!
Can the effects of the death of a close friend exacerbate or worsen if the person suffered multiple recent losses of other friends and/or family members?
Yes, especially if the losses are in quick succession of each other. There are compounding effects because the second loss can remind you of the first loss, and so on. In fact, often during the current loss, we are reminded of other losses we experienced, not just those due to death. Examples include loss of a pet, loss due to divorce and other significant painful events from our past.
Interestingly though, grief specialists also recognize that mourners that have had prior losses, to some degree, have learned how to “do grief.” Meaning they have learned that they will survive the current loss and they know what coping strategies to employ that have worked in the past. Grief specialists focus on strength based counseling, relying on the resiliency of the human spirit when assisting mourners in their grief recovery process.
Can you explain the concept of “complicated grief?” How would someone know when he/she needs to seek out professional help after a loss?
Complicated grief is essentially grief that is extended far beyond what might be “normal” for that person’s age, gender, culture, faith, tradition, etc., and/or a grief reaction that greatly impacts the individual’s normal functions and activities of daily life. Symptoms generally include intense longing, intrusive preoccupation and inadequate adaption to the loss. About 7 percent of the general population suffers from complicated grief after a significant loss.
There are two basic paradigms enlisted in trying to understand what complicated grief is. One camp tends to see complicated grief as normal grief with abnormal intensity and duration. The other camp tends to define complicated grief as the existence of “risk factors” that lead to maladaptive adjustment, such as preexisting psychiatric or substance abuse issues, concurrent life stressors (e.g., “Not only have I lost my best friend but also I lost my job last week and my boyfriend left me,”), if the death was a child or young person, or if the relationship with the deceased was ambivalent or difficult. Also, sudden or traumatic death such as a homicide or suicide can exacerbate the grief reaction.
It is not necessary to be suffering from complicated grief to seek professional help after a loss. It is always helpful to discuss your loss with a trusted friend and also to seek further support from a mental health professional, counselor or clergy person. As stated earlier, it is important for people who are grieving to find someone who will validate the significance of the loss.
VITAS Healthcare offers grief and bereavement support to families and friends of our patients and to the community-at-large if they need it. As a leader in the hospice movement, VITAS is committed to providing quality end-of-life care to terminally ill patients, and is equally committed to educating the community about grief and providing resources to help families and friends heal across the country.
Previously on The Friendship Blog: