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Five Ways to Cope With Grief This Holiday Season

Bonnie and Tom Carroll in 1992. (Courtesy of Bonnie Carroll)
Bonnie and Tom Carroll in 1992. (Courtesy of Bonnie Carroll)

The holiday season brings beautiful colors that shift into winter, gatherings with family and friends, and a sense of coming changes.

Days grow shorter, nights are longer, and snow begins to fall.

For many, anticipation builds as the holidays approach, with decorations to be put up, gifts to be bought and cards to be mailed.

But for those grieving the loss of a loved one, the anticipation can morph into a sense of dread; the thought of enduring the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's without our loved one can be unbearable.

On a November day in Alaska 25 years ago, my husband died in an Army plane crash with seven other soldiers.

I entered that holiday season in shock, paralyzed by the surreal events that completely changed my life.

In the years that followed, I learned to cope and to not only face the holidays without Tom, but also to help others who were trying to deal with the same challenges I was.

Thousands of military families will be facing this holiday season without a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling or a battle buddy.

For some, this will be the first holiday season without their loved one, and many of these struggles will be new. For others who are a few years out from their loss, this is a struggle they know is coming.

Whether your loss is new or several years in the past, here are a few tips I can offer to help families as they cope with grief this holiday season.

1. Acknowledge your loved one's presence and absence.

There are many ways to do this: You can light a candle for your loved one, set an empty place setting at the table, or take part in an activity that connects you to him or her.

2. Re-imagine gift giving.

Your loved one gave you many gifts over the years. Take a moment to write yourself a note listing the long-lasting gifts you are still enjoying from your loved one. Taking it one step further, you may want to re-imagine the holiday traditions you have established over time. Some are meaningful, and you will want to keep them but, in other cases, they may have outlived their usefulness. Some can be adapted to your circumstances this year.

3. Involve your children in planning.

Although children experience the most excitement around the holidays, it can be especially hard for those grieving the loss of mom, dad or a sibling. They may have ideas about how they want to remember your loved one and new ways to celebrate that can be healing for the whole family.

4. Say "yes" to at least one invitation.

The corollary to this is "be selective." The holidays are a difficult time to be alone, but it's normal to feel like it's just too hard to participate in the festivities. You can benefit from being around others who understand and care about you, and sometimes those people need to help -- it's their way of working through their own grief.

5. Take care of you.

Self-care is one of the most important gifts you can give yourself. Even for those not grieving, the holiday season brings a unique set of stresses and demands. Add in grief, and you may find it is just too much. Give yourself time to rest, and avoid committing to more than you have the physical and psychological energy to handle. Be graceful with yourself on the "bad days," and know that you will have them.

Finally, remember that love does not end at death. Yes, our relationship with our loved ones is different now, but it has not ended. We carry on their life and legacy, during the holidays and every day of the year.

This season, let's honor them by seeking the joy they would have wished for us.

-- Bonnie Carroll is president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Since 1994, TAPS has provided compassionate care for the families of America's fallen military heroes and has offered support to more than 70,000 surviving family members and their caregivers. Anyone grieving the loss of a military loved one who needs support this holiday or any day can call their 24/7 Helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277).