Grief and the Holidays After a Substance Related Passing

deaths due to substance abuse GRASP poster

GRASP photo of deceased loved ones due to the use of substances

It’s here, the holiday season has arrived.  For many of us its significance is only overshadowed by the birthday or “death date” of our loved one.

It is a time of increased anxiety and a painful longing for times past when our friends and family were healthy, and able to come together for celebration.   Few of us were fortunate in having loving, non-judgmental friends and family who truly understood addiction as a disease.  The majority of us who have lost a loved one to the use of drugs or alcohol will not receive the compassion and support so critical to healing.

The stigma associated with a substance related passing devalues the life of those we miss so deeply.  The tremendous media attention to family and traditions of love and warmth and joy are emotional triggers that serve only to emphasize the absence of our child, our sibling, parent, spouse or friend.

Anxiety and fear arise worrying about whether anyone will mention our deceased loved one as we gather around the feast table.  Will they see his passing as a relief to a problem or the painful tragedy we have to confront every waking moment?  Do they notice he is gone?  Will I feel uncomfortable because everyone else is acting normal and do they wonder why I am not over it yet?  How will I address the traditions I am too emotionally fatigued to participate in?  What will happen if I fall apart or lose it, and in the midst of my own grief how do I support the rest of my family who is also grieving.

There is not a singular all-encompassing answer to surviving the holidays.  Each of us has a unique grief experience even within the same family.

Frequently the initial response is to avoid the season entirely.  Unfortunately the media and commercialism makes this a difficult task.  Many will travel and completely change environments to distance themselves from the onslaught of painful emotional triggers.

Ideas for Surviving the Holiday

The social stigma of a substance use passing encourages silence and exclusion.  Silence further disenfranchises grief.  Often people don’t know what to say to a bereaved person and don’t want to risk causing further pain.  If you are strong enough, say his name, show his photo, and reflect on fun memories of times past.  Let others know what supports you and brings you comfort.  There is healing in the telling.  Through our style of “telling and including” it gives others permission to talk and offers guidance as to what is comfortable for us.

Holiday traditions offer an opportunity for continuing the bond with our deceased loved one.  Create rituals that honor and include those who have died.  Keep a candle burning, make their favorite food, bring out the photo album.

Redefining traditions and making new rituals is also very helpful in supporting the children and grandchildren the death may have left behind.  Talking and planning new traditions gives them the opportunity for reflection and expression of feelings.  Advocacy projects, volunteering and giving in their honor are traditions that support the fact their death mattered and that they continue to have impact even in their absence.

Prioritize your needs.  Create the holidays on your own terms.  Stigmatized loss is often very isolating and increases the need to withdraw from others.  Stay connected.  Choose people and situations that offer compassion, that honor your loved one and the journey you have traveled.  Post your photos and stories on the GRASP face book site.  Consider holiday Celebration of Life events, seek the warmth of your spiritual community, or attend an inclusive bereavement support group.

Be gentle with yourself.  Be truthful about your grief.  One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde, “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground”.  Your sorrow is an intimate expression of how deeply you have loved.

This holiday season there will be a song, a taste, a memory that will bring an unexpected wave of grief.  Embrace it, let the tears flow freely and you may discover that this intimate feeling of sorrow is accompanied by a certainty and an intimate connection to that one you miss so dearly.

My thoughts remain with you this entire holiday journey.

Julie  A Siri, MSW, LCSW


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