Getting through the most “wonderful time of the year”
November 4, 2022
It’s that time of the year again, the time when we use two powerful words repeatedly. Family and holidays. These two words evoke strong emotion, good and bad. And we give them the power to make us laugh or cry. But they are more than words. They are feelings and memories. They’ve become part of who we are. And right now, as we enter the “most wonderful time of the year,” we need to understand ourselves and ensure we are safe and comfortable with the power those words hold for us.
We will all be missing someone this year. We’ve all lost someone, at some time in our lives and we’ll feel their loss. This is no different for those who answer the call every day and see tragedy on a regular basis – our nation’s first responders and their families. The most important thing to remember is that grief knows no rules, no sense of time, no appropriate way to behave. Remind yourself that you are the only person who can decide how to feel and act as memories flood through your heart. Grief compounded with the stressors and expectations of holidays can create overwhelming feelings that seem to have no place to go. As these feelings build up, we need to find a place for them, a way to release them so we aren’t overcome to the point of being unable to function. There were many years when “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a holiday staple for me. The older I get, the more loss I see, the less I can bear during the holidays. Unless I want a good, unabashed cry for all the people I have seen suffer, I can no longer watch that movie. There is something about it that brings me to the point of being unable to function. It floods me with uncontrollable grief.
Your strongest ally
During this time, communication is your strongest ally. Be honest and be bold. Create a routine that allows you and your family to discuss feelings, reward honesty and establish emotional boundaries. Know when to talk and when to listen. Discuss everything without shame or fear and find out what each of you need to feel safe with your feelings. Perhaps one of you likes to talk and another prefers journaling. Respect your differences while encouraging creative ways to express yourself. Find ways to compromise. I can’t watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I’d love to watch “White Christmas.”
Understanding each other is important. What do you need most? Someone to listen? A quiet walk alone? A sad movie that will help you release your tears?
Be honest with yourself and do not be ashamed. Alternately, don’t mock or belittle someone else’s needs. Throughout our lives, we develop different coping methods. Different life experiences have taught us what we need most. Personally, I like to read Amish romance novels. Everyone knows it. They don’t understand it and it gives them a chuckle, but it’s what I need. Allow yourself and others to provide a safe outlet for your feelings without judgement.
Don’t pretend you are OK
Acknowledge that you are going to have a tough time. Don’t pretend you are okay if you aren’t. Manage your well-being: emotional, physical and spiritual. Create a plan to safely get through your feelings and share that plan with a trusted friend. Do not accept anything less than what you need to get through this time of year. Make a list of resources or people you may need if things become especially hard. Recognize your triggers and internal warning signs.
Act on your own behalf. This can be something as simple as leaving a room for a few minutes to regroup or deciding you simply can’t make that elaborate dessert. People will forget about the dessert; they won’t forget about you. Your wellness is far more important than anyone else’s opinion of you. Be selfish. Think of yourself first.
While it shouldn’t be your job to educate others when you are struggling, sometimes it’s necessary and helpful. Do you find it healing to share your story and teach others? Every person you tell will be better for it and they will educate someone else. Share what feels comfortable, share it in advance so you don’t have to explain when you are in the thick of it. Share it later when you don’t feel emotional or ask someone to share for you.
Set your own rules. This will make things that much easier for next year and for every family that comes after you.
Giving words power
Finally, your voice has power. Don’t be afraid to communicate your pain about losing your responder to suicide, line of duty or other struggles. People are uncomfortable with the word suicide, but your grief, your healing, your needs are as relevant as any other loss. You own the space you are in. You define it. Don’t let anyone’s fear, bias or misunderstanding get in the way of your grieving, communicating, loving, remembering or celebrating.
You are walking a path with other survivors that has no room for judgement or shame. You have made it this far and you will continue to learn, heal and incorporate family and holidays into your life as appropriate. Do not put yourself aside in favor of others. Don’t be afraid to say the name of your loved one. Embrace your memories. Share them and remind everyone of the most wonderful time of your life when they walked alongside you. Your family, your holiday, lives in your heart. It’s not a date on a calendar or an ancestry chart. Don’t let traditional definitions hold you back.
If you’ve lost a first responder to suicide, First H.E.L.P. offers many services to help you and your family throughout your grief process. If you are an agency wondering how you can present services, take a look at the unique training offered.
Looking for more resources and tips to manage stress throughout the holidays? Families who have suffered a suicide loss offer their thoughts on The Mighty. Find out what one family learned from their first holiday after a loss, visit Grief.com for year round resources and find tips to manage stress at the Mayo Clinic online.
Karen Solomon is the President and co-founder of First H.E.L.P. (Honor. Educate. Lead. Prevent.). She is also the creator of www.1sthelp.net and the author of “Hearts Beneath the Badge” and “The Price They Pay” as well as many articles about suicide in law enforcement. Karen was a member of the 2018 Officer Safety and Wellness Group Meeting, the co-Chair of the Data and Research Committee of the National Consortium on Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention and is currently on the FBI task force to implement the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act. Karen’s spouse is a police officer.