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  • The Team @ HERO

Navigating Holiday Grief: Understanding the Effects of Primary and Secondary Losses and Strategies

As the holiday season soon approaches, so can many looming feelings related to the current state of our lives, relationships, and thoughts about how we may wish our lives/current situations could be different. As we now sometimes see Christmas and Halloween decorations in stores at the same time, it seems earlier and earlier each year that we begin to focus on the holiday season and consciously or not, all the responsibilities and expectations that come along with the seasons.

As we begin to think about the impacts of grief and loss on our experiences of the holiday season, we define primary losses as being the actual death of a person or being. The term secondary loss can then be defined as changes in relationships, lifestyle, roles or status, and/or stability that are either related to a primary loss or any other major life transition. Or to put it simply, secondary losses are the loss of something that is not an actual death.

(For more information on primary and secondary losses, see blog post titled Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable: Recognizing Secondary Losses in a Death Denying Culture)

With primary losses, the reasons for the holiday season being difficult can be apparent and obvious. Despite the potential obviousness of the impact of our loss and despite whether our loss occurred 6 months ago, 1 year ago, or 15 years ago, our experience of grief may be compounded by expectations of where we think we should be in our grief and/or expectations of where we should be that are placed on us by others. In response to the feelings that come up around our primary loss, especially if the thoughts are centered around thinking that we should be stronger, or at a different place in our grief, or we’re not grieving correctly, it can be helpful to think about how we experience and process grief differently throughout the maturing process. It’s very common and understandable that throughout our transitions into different life phases, we may feel or be impacted differently by the loss and how ever we react to this is “normal”.

In regards to secondary losses, our unique family culture and/or nuances of relationships is commonly where secondary losses can be tied and can serve to exacerbate the already challenging feelings that come up. For example, if the person we lost was the one to make a specific dish that we looked forward to having each year. Even if another loved one tries to recreate that specific dish, they could make it exactly the same as the lost loved one, but it still may never taste the same. Another example could be that the loved one we lost was always the one we could count on to provide some comic relief if there always comes a point where some tension comes up in the day. To continue to illustrate the nuance of secondary losses, another example can include the loss of the life and/or tradition we thought we were going to have until the loss happened. It then, could make sense that feelings of guilt come up that we're here to enjoy the holidays without that loved person we lost, because the expectation was that we were going to have a lifetime of holiday memories to share with them. Even when experiencing a moment of joy, that may lead to thoughts of guilt that we’re here to still be able to experience all that comes along with the holidays but our loved one isn’t here to share in the memory making moments. Especially as time passes and families grow, many feelings can come up around our loved one not being here to be the family member we assumed would be here as the family tree grows.

In response to the potentially mixed and complex feelings and emotions of the holidays, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that our reactions and responses to grief and loss are “normal”, understandable, and usually make a lot of sense. Despite how much or little experience we have with loss it may be helpful to let go of the expectation that there’s a right or wrong way to do it, or that we should be progressing or “mastering” how to deal with loss along a certain trajectory. Some days will feel easier or harder to survive than others, some years will feel   easier or harder to survive than others. As the holiday season may feel like it's going to trigger emotions that may be intense to where it feels beyond our control, what we can plan for is how to take care of ourselves and survive the triggers of these moments the holiday season may bring on. 

Things to think about when planning how to survive holiday grief can include thinking about formal/informal supports that help us to feel safe and checking in about their availability throughout the season. We can also think about activities or traditions that help us feel a sense of security or closeness with our lost person.

To provide food for thought for potential activities or traditions to engage in to feel close to our lost person can include making a playlist of their favorite songs or watching a favorite movie of theirs. Also, we could make a meal of all their favorite foods or hold a dinner in their honor at their favorite restaurant. Another option could be to create a memory box, filling it with items that hold sentimental value to their memory that is kept in a safe place but taken out and used as needed. Creating something tangible such as a memory box can be helpful because we can also think about storing emotions, feelings, and thoughts of grief in that same box which we know can be accessed as we choose/needed. All of these options can be as formal or informal, structured or spontaneous, and include as many or little people as what feels helpful.

Moreover, it can also be helpful to think about boundaries that may be helpful to set with others and even for ourselves during the holiday season. And finally, but possibly most importantly, it can be helpful to try and stay connected with what our gut instincts are guiding us to or what feels right in terms of what feels helpful for survival in these moments. 


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