Grieving a Dying Loved One During the Holidays

In many countries of the world, the winter holidays are often stated to be the most magical and wonderful time of the year. However, due to this sentiment as well as the emotional gravitas that we put upon this time of year, it can lead to mixed emotions when the holidays do not feel the way that you think they should.  the holidays are about coming together with friends and family and sharing the joy and of building those memories together. However, as the expectation is to spend time with family it can lead to painful mixed emotions to celebrate the winter holidays with the knowledge that it may be the last holiday with your elderly loved one.

The bittersweet feelings of the grief and celebration of life can feel overwhelming even in normal circumstances and may feel heightened and expanded during the holidays.  This grief can begin after an elderly loved one may be diagnosed with a fatal condition and is called anticipatory grief.  This grief in anticipation of the death of a precious loved one is painful to experience however it is also allowing your brain and spirit to prepare emotionally for the inevitable.  Anticipatory grief may have a variety of timelines depending on the severity of the diagnosis, a caregiver of a person with Alzheimer’s may grieve slowly and ongoing as the condition worsens however if an elderly loved one is diagnosed with an advanced disease such as cancer the anticipatory grief may only last a few months.

Grieving is a process and is a difficult ongoing process, however grieving during the holidays can be particularly painful due to the expectations surrounding the holiday season. Grieving often takes time, energy, and emotional space to navigate and during the holidays people are often busy, stressed, and over-stimulated. It can also feel as if the family is playing tug-of-war with the impending situation. You and your family may want to be joyous and celebrate life with your elderly loved one as it may be their last holiday, however, you are also living and navigating with the knowledge that the future celebrations will never be the same.  While navigating this painful reality can be a challenge, quality time spent with your loved one is a gift even if it is at times fraught with challenges.

In order to manage grief during the holidays, you must first acknowledge the inevitable. Trying to emotionally or functionally avoid the loss of your loved one will only prolong the painful feelings of loss. By coming to terms with the reality of the situation, your family will be able to enjoy the time that they have available to them while also having important discussions regarding end-of-life care and preferred funeral arrangements.  The senior in question should be made the focus of the holiday celebrations both for their comfort and for the joy of the family. Try to involve them in as much of the festivities as possible including holiday movie nights, baking, and decorating the home.

While including your elderly loved one is important and valuable to their feelings during this difficult time, it is important to keep in mind that the person who is dying will also be emotionally processing their own grief in their own time. Including them in the festivities is a beautiful tradition that will keep them feeling joyous and loved.  However, as they are in the grieving process themselves, they may feel devastated and fearful. they may be navigating through their own stages of grief regarding their prognosis and it is important to hold space for their mourning regardless of how different it may be from yours.

Everyone in your family and friend group including the elderly loved one will feel differently about the experience and grieve differently according to their personality and life experience. It is important to hold space and give grace to those who are suffering through this difficult time and also take time for yourself, as processing these emotions can be incredibly taxing on your mental health. If the grieving process in the family becomes too much to bear, it may be time to hire a personal care worker to help your family and the elderly loved one transition into hospice care depending on their unique circumstances.


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