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Communication key to dealing with grief during the holidays

November 29, 2016

Grief regarding the death of a loved one can be as big a part of the holidays as celebration for some families, according to College of Education professor Heather Servaty-Seib, who specializes in grief. She said the traditional gatherings of family and friends around this time of year can understandably highlight the absence of someone who has died.

“Some of it is the absence of that person, some of it may be that family traditions and rituals just cannot be the same,” Servaty-Seib said.

The resulting emotions can be difficult for people who think the rise of grief means they didn’t find closure from the loss, which can be months or years prior. Servaty-Seib disputes the idea of closure and said one thing to remember is that grief does not end.

“It shifts and changes over time and is unpredictable,” she said. “Sometimes people who are grieving will talk about it being a roller coaster. You don’t really know when it will hit you and when it won’t.”

For family members who experience holiday grief in connection with a loved one, communication and self-awareness are keys. Not everyone grieves in the same way and Servaty-Seib said it is important that everyone’s grief-related needs are met.

“The more families can talk about their differences and hopes and their expectations, the more they might be able to work on a sense of compromise or a sense of how each family member can get their needs met,” she said. “Some actions may be done collectively; whereas some may need to be done individually.”

It is important to remember children and teenagers, including through their college years, when discussing grief. Teenagers will avoid the subject so as not to burden parents or relatives while children mature in their ability to understand death and then shift in their grief based on that developing understanding.

Servaty-Seib said dealing with grief is difficult because everyone handles it in a different way.

“If there was a linear path people could follow, grief would not be as challenging as it is,” she said. “But there isn’t. You have to keep in mind not only the uniqueness of each person but also the unique relationship they had with the person who died.”

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