The Stress of Remembering Our Loved Ones: Seasonal Triggers

Major holidays are special for many of us. But for some people it represents painful reminders of past loved ones.

The holidays are a time when many of us connect with loved ones, and take time to cherish each other. However, it’s not easy for everyone to celebrate these festive times.

Some people have difficulty embracing holidays with fond memories, having previously suffered losses during this period. Instead, it’s an anniversary of that painful experience—a “trigger” that makes it difficult to face.

For Sara Duhamel (name changed) the triggers start months before the anniversary of the death of her mother. “The reminders start in October, around my birthday, when I know I won’t be receiving that phone call or special “To My Daughter…” card, and continue through Christmas and New Year’s, when she died shortly afterward.”

Sara adds that she tries to make the most of the holidays, and to stay busy, but the void from the loss of her mother is magnified during this time, as are the memories and thoughts of her passing. And she says, “it can be paralyzing, and stop you in your tracks.”

The absence of a loved one during celebrated times can be challenging. It can be difficult to separate the holiday from the anniversary, and can take an emotional toll.

This toll can take on the guise of the following symptoms:

  • Avoidance of situations and people that are painful reminders.
  • Attempting to avoid or numb emotions (especially by using    substances, such as alcohol or drugs), and detaching from loved      ones.
  • Feeling irritable, anxious or angry.
  • A loss of interests and activities previously enjoyed.
  • Difficulty concentrating and finishing tasks.
  • Insomnia.

If you find yourself with symptoms that prevent you from enjoying yourself, create alternative ways of coping, so you can embrace the joys and create more meaning.

The following are some tips to help you enjoy the season a little more.

  • Plan ahead. Focus on what you want, rather than dwelling on negative aspects. Think about what can you do for yourself to make this occasion easier or more enjoyable.
  • Create new traditions. Your loss may have impacted your traditions. Create new rituals to make this time meaningful again.
  • Take care of yourself. Do things in support of feeling better—that will uplift you emotionally. Eating healthy and exercise is a good start. Going for walks can uplift your mood and be soothing.
  • Get support. Talk to a caring friend, the clergy, and community organizations, which can also inform you about resources available in your area.

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) suggests talking to your doctor about the upsetting event, as well as some of the symptoms you may be experiencing. “Tell your doctor if you have scary memories, if you feel sad, if you have trouble sleeping, or if you are angry all the time. Tell your doctor if these problems keep you from doing everyday things and living your life.”

It’s also important to be sensitive to those we know that may be experiencing difficulty.

How to lend your support:

• Be there to listen if someone needs to talk.
• Express empathy and understanding.
• Help in general areas where needed.
• Include them in social activities.
• Provide supportive resources.

A little compassion can go a long way during challenging times.

The death of a loved one is “one of life’s most stressful events,” according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). It’s a major life change that never really leaves you. They add, “A great hurt is never completely forgotten; rather, it takes its place among life’s other, more immediate demands.” Special occasions have a way of bringing that hurt back to life.

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