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Do you ever dread the autumn and winter holidays? Typically when the leaves start changing, I begin to feel this heavy sense of trepidation. I get these waves of nervousness and unpleasant memories that I wish would stay away. Every year, I worry that trauma anniversaries will pollute a time that is supposed to be joyful and relaxing.
“As the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event approaches, many survivors report a return of restlessness and fear. Psychological literature calls it the anniversary reaction and defines it as an individual's response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses.” (“Anniversary Reactions to a Traumatic Event”, n.d.) I lost a friend this past year and I have been grieving his passing. But even during holiday seasons where I did not lose a loved one, I had trouble managing turbulent emotions; around the holidays it takes a lot of energy and focus to get my mind away from traumatic childhood holiday memories. It’s easy to feel guilty or annoyed at yourself when your mood doesn’t match the season or the occasion- like when your family wants to open presents but you can’t stop crying in the bathroom.
Pain exists beyond schedules and seasonal events, and it likes to crash parties at the most inconvenient times. There’s never a convenient time to grieve, but it’s definitely difficult to experience catharsis during a holiday dinner.
It is normal to be apprehensive about the holiday season after experiencing grief and trauma. Traditions (and even family members) should not demand that you hide your emotions for appearance’s sake. Your healing process should not be secondary to dinners and fireworks. Do not be afraid to speak with trusted loved ones and therapists (if accessible and when they have the capacity) about your well-being and bereavement process. Your tears and heartache are communicating to you that parts of your heart and mind need additional care.
In recent years, we lost over 6.5 million people to COVID-19. “COVID-19 poses a more targeted threat to health than previous pandemics however we have more understanding of its etiology and epidemiology than would have been possible in previous centuries.” (Patterson et al.) It is nearly impossible to ignore the aforementioned reality and to put your head in the sand while you and your community are at risk. The holiday season (and the music that accompanies it) traditionally spurs us toward togetherness and time with family- it can be a nagging reminder that we are isolating from COVID-19, a reminder that we deeply miss the deceased, and a reminder that families globally are grieving.
“Researchers have a sense of what constitutes “good” and “bad” deaths. Bad deaths are those that involve pain or discomfort and happen in isolation. Their unexpectedness also makes these deaths more distressing. People whose loved ones die “bad deaths” tend to report greater mental distress than those whose loved ones died in more favorable circumstances. COVID-19 deaths often bear many hallmarks of “bad” deaths. They are preceded by physical pain and distress, often occur in isolated hospital settings and happen suddenly – leaving family members unprepared. The ongoing nature of the pandemic has inflicted an added layer of agony, as individuals are grieving during a time of protracted social isolation, economic precarity and general uncertainty.” (Smith-Greenaway)
At the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of funerals, wakes, visitation weeks, and homegoing celebrations were postponed if not canceled worldwide. Most people stopped engaging in these customs for a time because gathering in groups (to this day) increases the risk of COVID-19 (and now monkeypox) transmission. Many participated in live-streamed funerals and other events in order to honor loved ones when they could not pay their respects in person. (Wells, 2020)
These events are how a lot of people begin their grieving process. We are not given a handbook nor are we given instructions when we lose someone. Missing those sacred moments in order to avoid deadly illnesses is wise, but it can produce immense guilt and frustration in bereaved people. Avoiding these rituals while in a pandemic can potentially harm our mental health, while simultaneously preserving our physical health. A lot of us were stuck between a rock and a hard place- we wanted to go out in public to honor the departed, but we also knew that they would likely want us to survive the pandemic and to live full lives.
Moreover, there are numbers of people who cannot fully process their grief or trauma because there are new traumas happening daily. (Marginalized people in particular do not have the luxury of tuning out the news cycle [thereby tuning out additional trauma], because the political and social information that is covered affects our safety and well-being.) I spoke with Licensed Social Worker and Co-occurring Mental Health/Addiction Counselor Trevor Kalinkos, who stated, “Unresolved grief can increase the chances of [experiencing] comorbidities like suicidal ideation- so if someone was depressed before the pandemic, [and then lost someone or was traumatized in another way] they may not even be able to hold down a job because of their mental health.” Grief and trauma can be debilitating and immobilizing even long after a traumatic event.
Living through a pandemic and through mass-death is taking a toll on humankind in myriad ways. As Kalinkos expressed, if you were subjected to trauma or loss before or during the pandemic, the healing process may be stunted as the pandemic continues. It is difficult to process life-altering changes when the changes just keep coming.
Please know that you are not alone in these struggles. Suppressed healing and emotional growth are not moral failures- you are living through one of the most mismanaged and disabling events in history. Grief does not provide an excuse for any of us to cause harm, but it does mean that we can cut ourselves some slack after what we have endured; grieving means we can say ‘no’ to things that are too much for us to handle, and ‘yes’ to things that we will enjoy doing.
Go easy on yourself regardless of the pressure people put on you to heal at their pace. You cannot be expected to recover from grief and trauma immediately, especially during an ongoing global pandemic. Do not be afraid to ask trusted people (like counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals) for help when you need it, nor to accept help when it is given. It may be difficult, but I implore you to focus on the things that will restore and revive you as often as you can this holiday season. You don’t have to be brave and tough all of the time.
“Office of Mental Health.” Anniversary Reactions to a Traumatic Event: The Recovery Process Continues, https://omh.ny.gov/omhweb/disaster_resources/pandemic_influenza/anniversary_reactions_to_traumatic_event.html.
Patterson , Grace E., et al. Societal Impacts of Pandemics: Comparing COVID-19 With History to Focus Our Response. 12 Apr. 2021, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2021.630449/full.
Smith-Greenaway, Emily. “1 In 8 U.S. Deaths from 2020 to 2021 Came from Covid-19 – Leaving Millions of Relatives Reeling from Distinctly Difficult Grief.” Penn State Social Science Research Institute, COVID-19 Resources, 12 July 2022, https://covid19.ssri.psu.edu/news/1-8-us-deaths-2020-2021-came-covid-19-leaving-millions-relatives-reeling-distinctly-difficult.
Wells, Jane. “Coronavirus Pandemic Forces the Funeral Industry Online.” CNBC, CNBC, 27 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2020/05/27/coronavirus-pandemic-forces-the-funeral-industry-online.html.