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Navigating the holidays without a loved one

updated 10:35 AM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
Even the brightest holiday lights can't dull the grief of losing a loved one.
Even the brightest holiday lights can't dull the grief of losing a loved one.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Grief-stricken can have a hard time balancing the merry with the mourning, psychologist says
  • Guilt during moments of holiday cheer is a common emotion for those grieving, he says
  • Expert advises people to manage social obligations wisely as grief takes a toll

(CNN) -- Tasha Dimling always looked forward to sharing a prized bottle of wine on Christmas Day with her father from his cellar.

Last Christmas, Dimling had to decant the bottle of 1975 Château Grand-Puy Ducasse at her dad's grave site in Findlay, Ohio.

"I knew I needed to connect just with Dad that day before going off and celebrating Christmas with the rest of my family," she says.

Her father, James Dimling, died from a heart attack two days after Thanksgiving in 2012; he was 74.

"He was the only person who understood me," says the self-described "Daddy's little girl."

Tasha Dimling says she visits the grave of her father, James Dimling, at Christmas to share a glass of wine.
Tasha Dimling says she visits the grave of her father, James Dimling, at Christmas to share a glass of wine.

This year, she will once again pack up her car with the Waterford glasses from her parents' wedding, a picnic blanket and a bottle of 1970 Château Canon Saint-Emilion. It's her way of breathing life into a holiday tradition cut short.

Words such as jolly, cheery and bright infiltrate the season between Thanksgiving and New Year's, but those who have lost a dear friend or family member during this time are left with the antitheses of good tidings, comfort and joy -- an annual reminder that their holiday celebration is missing a very important person.

While popular culture proclaims the holiday season as a time of happiness, grief-stricken people can have an especially hard time balancing the merry with the mourning, says clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow.

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Even the brightest holiday lights can't dull the grief of losing a loved one.

"If you're grieving, your natural, healthy and necessary emotional process runs contrary to what's around you," Klapow says. "And that can make your grief more noticeable to you and to others."

Klapow, an associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says guilt is often a common and unexpected emotion for those who have experienced loss near the holidays.

Community rallies to save Christmas for grieving family

"People don't understand just because you're going through grief doesn't mean that you must be, or will be, sad every single day throughout the holidays," Klapow says.

Kristine Brite McCormick of Indianapolis has always experienced a tinge of somberness around the holidays; her grandfather passed away on Christmas Day before she was born.

"My mother didn't directly talk about it, but loss has always been a part of the holidays for me," she says.

On December 6, 2009, that seasonal melancholy reached critical mass when her newborn daughter, Cora, died in her arms of a congenital heart defect at only 5 days old. Cora was the first and only child for McCormick and her husband.

Cora McCormick died of a congenital heart defect at only 5 days old. Her mom lights five flameless candles at Christmas.
Cora McCormick died of a congenital heart defect at only 5 days old. Her mom lights five flameless candles at Christmas.

They had already bought a "Baby's First Christmas" ornament. Instead, it hung at her funeral on a pink Christmas tree they chose to display.

Klapow says the most vital piece of advice for those in a similar situation is to give yourself permission to grieve.

"(Grief) is this amazing process of our ability to handle tragedy," he says. "If you think about it that way, I'm not saying it's going to make you feel happy, it just doesn't make grief so foreign, mysterious and negative."

Klapow says the process of grief takes an emotional and physical toll, so it's important to manage the plethora of social obligations wisely during the holidays.

If you don't want to come out of your room for a day or two, that's acceptable, he says. But, after two weeks, if you're not able to muster up the strength to do basic tasks, it might be useful to talk to a professional.

"You don't have to go to every party. Recognize you may feel tired, you may feel spent -- it's important that you take care of yourself physically," he says.

He also says not to be afraid of the wave of powerful emotions; do not continually push away feelings of sadness.

"One of the best things you can do is, if you need a cry, you cry," he says. "You will not be crying for days on end."

Klapow says, unfortunately, every holiday may trigger traumatic memories. For the families of Newtown, Connecticut, there is never going to be a December where they magically forget that tragic day at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In Newtown, a season of peace destroyed

It's important to redefine the holiday period as a memorial, he says.

In McCormick's case, she lights five flameless candles for those five days she was able to have with her daughter, and she puts out the pink Christmas tree from her funeral.

McCormick has since become an advocate for newborn screenings; Cora's Law passed in February 2011 in Indiana, requiring newborns to undergo a pulse oximetry screening, a test that determines the amount of oxygen in the blood and pulse rate.

This year, Cora's handmade stocking hangs once more on the mantel with care.

"When we have the family time, it's less of we have to get together and more of we get to get together. I just don't take people for granted," she says.

Have you dealt with grief during the holidays? Please share your story in the comments below.

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