Using the Tasks of Mourning to Soothe Holiday Heartaches

By Linda Lehmann, M.A., L.P.


Sigmund Freud was the first person to describe grief as "hard work." Many years later psychologist William Worden took Freud's description a step further when he described a series of tasks that the griever must accomplish as he or she moves through the process of grief. Worden calls the steps in the process tasks because he says that grief is "hard work". Additionally, Worden called these steps tasks because it calls upon the griever to be an active participant in his or her healing. We, as grievers do not need to be victims to our grief. There actually are things we can do that will help us with our grief.

As the holidays approach you may feel ill-prepared to face the stress of the season as you feel the intense pain and sadness around your child's death. You can choose to ignore your grief, minimize your grief, busy yourself with the distractions of the season and fall victim to it, or you can approach the holidays with intention. Following is a description of Worden's Tasks of Mourning with suggestions of how to use them to help you soothe your holiday heartaches.

To accept the reality of the loss

Often those of us who grieve fail to accept the reality of our loss as we plan for the holidays. We trick ourselves into thinking that we need to forge ahead and make our plans just as we have in years past and totally ignore our new reality. When we ignore our new reality, we heap added stress onto our battered hearts. This year, as you look toward the holidays, think about how you will acknowledge your child's death and the stress of that event by:

Deciding, as a group or individually, a way in which your child's death will be acknowledged and remembered in terms of:

  • Greeting cards
  • Gift giving
  • Meals
  • Decorating
  • Family get-togethers
  • Social gatherings

Deciding, realistically, what your level of involvement will be over the holidays. Recognize you may not be able to do it all this year. Ask for help.

Recognizing that grief affects your total being. Diligent self-care is of utmost importance.

  • Rest more
  • Drink more water
  • Pamper yourself (take a hot bubble bath, have a body massage, get a manicure, try a new hairstyle, or buy a new outfit)
  • Take time out to listen to your favorite holiday music
  • Increase your physical exercise
  • Slow down
  • Avoid too much alcohol, caffeine, overeating, sugar, over-scheduling and overworking.
  • Allow for unstructured time
  • Have an escape plan. Make your plans but give yourself permission to scrap the plans if they don't work for you. Inform family members and friends that you may need to change your plans on the spur of the moment if your plans seem too overwhelming.

To work through to the pain of grief

We cannot heal our grief, if we don't allow ourselves to feel our grief. If you scurry yourself through the holiday season, over schedule yourself and run yourself ragged, your feelings of grief will go underground and resurface after the holidays. Then they have the potential to be more overwhelming and more painful. But, if you give yourself permission to find moments that will allow you to feel your pain, it will honor your grief and honor the death of your child despite all of the other distractions. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take a pity bath. Fill your bathtub full of water, sit in it, and feel sorry for yourself for a few moments
  • Schedule time to allow yourself the freedom of a whole range of feelings
  • Write in a journal or draw pictures about your feelings
  • Join a support group
  • Listen to music that evokes feelings inside of you
  • Express your feelings through movement or exercise
  • Pray or meditate
  • Share remembrances of past holidays with someone who will listen
  • Find a witness to your pain. Be honest about your pain with someone you trust.

To adjust to an environment in which the person is missing

The holidays painfully remind us how much our lives have changed because our loved one has died. Never are we more aware how much we miss that person in our lives and the role that he or she played in our lives. As parents, so much of your time and energy around the holiday season is focused on your children and how to deliver holiday magic to them. This year you may feel at a loss. If you have no other children you may wonder, "What's the point?" If you have other children, you may find it difficult to motivate yourself to make their holiday special. Here are some things to consider as you adjust to the holidays without the presence of your child who died:

  • Identify the role your loved one or what you lost played in the holidays. Who will play this role now? Can members of the family share this role?
  • Identify what kind of practical support you need and then ask for it.
  • Make adjustments as necessary because of the death of your child. What needs to be changed? What holiday traditions don't work for you anymore? Develop new traditions. What holiday traditions still work for you and for your family? How can you hold onto those? What can stay the same? Practice flexibility.
  • Write your own script about the holiday season and then make it happen. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and write down your ideas. Talk to your family about it. Solicit help from others who can help you carry out your plan.

To emotionally relocate your loved one and reinvest your energy in new ways

This year your grief may be a huge presence in your life. But as you move through your grief, the intense feelings of grief will ease over time if you allow yourself to feel your grief. You may want to focus your energy on others who are walking a similar path or who are less fortunate than you. You may want to resume traditions of the past or begin accepting invitations to holiday events again. This shift does not signal that you have forgotten your child who died and moved past your grief, it just means that you take your child with you as you venture forward in your life. You may want to:

  • Find ways to donate time, money or yourself to others less fortunate than you.
  • Pick and choose social functions that you want to resume attending.
  • Commemorate your loss.

To re-define a new identity as you incorporate the loss into your sense of self

This fifth task has been added to Worden's four tasks of mourning. For most of you this task is something you will address further down the road on your journey of grief. The space of time and distance will lessen your pain and propel you forward into the rest of your life. When you get to this place, this task will allow you to put the death of your child into the bigger picture of your life. You will come to a place where you can see that, while the death of your child is a huge piece of your life story, it is not the only story. Certainly your child's death informs and defines the choices you make and the way you will live your life the rest of your life; but, you don't leave your child in your past, you carry your child with you into the rest of your life. You can do this by:

  • Embracing new pieces of your identity that emerge
  • Reading about grief, spiritual, and philosophical thought
  • Finding new meanings in the holiday season as a result of the death of your child.

Linda Lehmann, MA, LP, copyright, 2005