SRU professor offers advice about grieving during the holidays


Addressing mental health during the holidays

The holidays can trigger negative emotions for people grieving loss, especially this year with more people experiencing the death of loved ones because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Slippery Rock University social work professor offers coping strategies.

Dec. 14, 2021

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — December holidays such as Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah are often described on greeting cards and in other messages as ushering in the "season of joy," but for people experiencing grief or loss, the holidays can induce bittersweet or mostly negative emotions.

"The holidays combined with grief and loss is a clash of feelings," said Tami Micsky, a Slippery Rock University assistant professor of public health and social work. "Typically, we think of the holidays as a happy time and that we're celebrating, but for people experiencing grief and loss, it's the opposite of that; often there's a lot of sadness and maybe longing for the person who they've lost or longing for a situation to return."

A certified thanatologist, Micsky studies the effects of death and losses and she's presented research about coping strategies at several conferences. Also, she's planning to teach a Grief and Loss class at SRU next year. Prior to becoming a full-time professor last year, she spent more than 20 years in the clinical setting, working with children, teens and young adults at a grieving center and with Child Protective Services.

According to research, by the time they reach age 18, 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the likelihood of someone experiencing grief, as every death from COVID-19 will leave approximately nine people bereaved, and an estimated 120,630 children in the U.S. lost a primary caregiver due to a COVID-19-associated death.

Although loss is most often associated with the death of a family member, there are other types of loss that can make holidays difficult, such as a job loss, military deployment, divorce, a different living situation or simply a longing for "happier" times.

"We're often triggered by things such as places where we traditionally go, the smell of cookies baking, the Christmas tree, songs we hear or movies we see," Micksy said. "Those are all often reminders of really good things, but when people have experienced a loss, it might bring up memories of a person who has died so that those triggers are very abundant during the holidays."

Micksy said there's a delicate balance when it comes to triggering emotions. For a family that is used to visiting grandma on Christmas Eve, they might decide to start a new tradition or go on vacation after she passed away, or maybe they prepare the same meal that grandma used to make, as a way to honor her memory.

"Communication is key and asking your family members what they want to do, especially for children, is a nice way to have some continuity for them," Micsky said. "There's a balance. You have to focus on grief sometimes and take the time to feel the feelings and talk about whatever you're feeling. I say, 'talk about it,' but you can express grief in a lot of different ways; for example, journaling."

A grief theory that Micsky subscribes to is called the Dual Process Model, which suggests that people don't navigate grief in one, linear way -- following stages or tasks in a sequence over time -- but instead they bounce back and forth between being "loss-oriented" and "restoration-oriented."



"(In loss orientation), we allow ourselves to feel sad and express it, but we also need to have time for restoration, where we're focused on maybe doing things differently, maybe moving forward in some ways, or maybe distracting ourselves a little bit," Micsky said. "There's the old-school look at grief where (experts once said) you shouldn't distract yourself because that's unhealthy. But sometimes we need to watch a funny movie and just have a nice time and do so without feel guilty about it."

Micsky wrote a guide to grief during the holidays for The New Social Worker career magazine in 2017, encouraging readers and their clients to consider their "circle of control" when dealing with grief, such as planning ahead, delegating roles and minimizing stressors. She also provides advice for supporting others who might be grieving loss during the holidays.

"Most people don't know what else to say except, 'I'm sorry for your loss' and 'call me if you need anything,'" Micsky said. "That's motivated by positivity and there's kindness behind that, but I often tell people that they need to call that person and invite them to lunch and really make offers to people who are grieving. We would often tell the grievers to make a list of the things you need help with, so when somebody says, 'Can I help you with anything?,' you have something, such as help wrapping presents because you used to do that with your mother and you're not together to do that anymore. Be ready with responses because people don't know what to offer."

Not properly addressing grief can have major consequences. In extreme cases, grievers might cope by becoming addicted to alcohol, drugs or other harmful substances, or they might develop unhealthy or addictive behaviors such as excessive spending or gambling. Healthier behaviors might be taking a vacation, but Micsky said people need to confront their grief eventually.

"What we find with people who avoid the holidays, the sadness or the feelings that come along with a grief reaction, is they will be eventually be triggered at some point," Micsky said. "They might experience another type of loss down the line, and it doubles up the feelings because they've had a loss previously that they never really coped with appropriately."

Micsky once heard a phrase about coping with grief during the holidays at a conference that she often recites: "you control your jingle."

"You control what you do and don't do during the holidays, and if you don't want to go to a family gathering, you don't have to," Micsky said. "But there is a process to what you can expose yourself to while making sure that you can cope with it and not be surprised by it at some other time. There's definitely a combination of healthy coping and using the right combination of coping mechanisms that work for people."

More information about social work degree programs at SRU are available on the department's webpage.

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