Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: Dealing With Grief During the Holidays

UW Health Family Medicine physician Dr. Jacqueline GerhartMadison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that usually appears weekly on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.


Dear Readers: The holidays are a time for reflection. It allows us to look over the last year and to honor our health, happiness and family.


It also helps us to reflect on a year's worth of changes. Sometimes the changes are joyful - such as welcoming a new baby or starting a new job. Other times the changes are unexpected - such as an insurance change or a monetary setback. But sometimes the changes are devastating - such as receiving a difficult diagnosis or losing a loved one.

This holiday, I would like to reach out to those of you who are struggling with your own health or that of a loved one. And I especially want to reach out to those of you who have lost someone dear to your heart over this past year. There is no mistaking it: For those dealing with grief and loss, the holidays can be difficult.


If this applies to you, I want you to know that feeling grief, sadness or even frustration during the holidays is OK. Please know that you aren't alone. If you are grieving, please reach out to someone who will listen and care for you. This can be family, friends, a colleague, a support group, or even your healthcare provider. And please know that grief is a normal reaction to loss. In fact, after a significant loss, it is quite common to grieve for six months or more. This includes feeling depressed, being tearful, lacking motivation, lacking interest in activities you used to enjoy and lacking concentration or drive. In the six months to year after a significant loss or life-changing event, these symptoms can be quite normal.

In order to help prevent normal grief from progressing to major depression, you need to be honest with yourself and with others. While you may want to "put on a bright and cheery face" for all to see during the holidays, please do your best to respect your true emotions. Here are some strategies:

  1. Share your feelings. "Man, it's really tough without Frank here. He always would make us laugh when we got together for the holidays."
  2. Be realistic. "Thanks for the invite, but I honestly can't get dressed up and try to be happy at your holiday party. Could we meet one-on-one?"
  3. Let others know you need them: "Jane, I know it's hard getting all the kids in the car to drive to five different houses for Christmas. But please make me one of your stops. I could really use your support."
  4. Be honest when someone asks, "Is there anything I can do to help?": "Really the best thing you can do for me right now is make me some frozen meals and help with my shoveling." (Try not to say, "Oh no, I'm fine, thanks.")

And for those who are supporting someone grieving loved ones, try the following tips:

  1. Be understanding: "Ronnie went upstairs for a nap. He's been worn out since Bev's cancer diagnosis, and he just needs some time. He'll eat later."
  2. Give empathy: "Dad, it must be tough driving to the nursing home every day to see Mom. Thank you for your dedication and love - I'm sure she is so grateful."
  3. Acknowledge the grief and allow emotion/tears to be shared: "I miss Mom too, it's just not the same without her.
  4. Share in remembrance: "Remember when Grandpa used to tell us those funny stories? Who remembers one?"

Grief can be very difficult, especially during the holidays. Please take time to identify and reflect on the changes you have experienced over the last year, and reach out to others who can support you in joy and in loss.


Happy holidays! 


This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.

Date Published: 12/27/2013

News tag(s):  jacqueline l gerhart

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