The Holidays from a Counselling Perspective

by Melanie Rathgeber, MC, MA, RCC

The holiday season can bring strong emotions — some positive and some negative — for all of us.  Earlier this year I completed a training course on grief, and I was reminded how beneficial the principles of grief counselling are to many of my clients. Emotional challenges often stem from loss of some kind, and it is important to recognize and process those losses accordingly.  So for the holidays, I wanted to share thoughts on Grief During the Holidays, written by my colleagues at Living Through Loss Counselling Society in Vancouver. I hope their reflections are helpful to you, whether you are experiencing loss yourself, or want to provide comfort to others in your life.  I encourage all my clients to pay special attention to the first point – planning ahead. It will give you some control over the days ahead.  Read below for further thoughts and reflections from experts in this area.

Wishing you all peace, comfort, and hope during this holiday season.  

  – Melanie Rathgeber, Registered Clinical Counsellor

Grief During Holidays (from Living Through Loss Counselling Society)

The pain we experience when we lose someone we love is more intense during special days. The expectation of relaxation, happiness, and celebration makes a sharp contrast to the pain of loss. Nothing can change our reality but there are some things to do to manage grief and help ourselves to cope.

Plan Ahead

Decide in advance how the special day or days will be spent. However, be flexible if you find things aren’t working out as expected. The plan was made to help, not to cause more distress. So be realistic.

Talk About Your Grief

Friends and family do not always understand that your loved one is never out of your mind. Try to give your sorrow words, or write them in a journal. It is healthy to share your memories both happy and sad with people who care.

We Have Tears For A Purpose

Scientists speculate that tears contain a component that has the effect of improving our emotional state. However it works, experience tells us that crying is healing. If you don’t feel comfortable crying in the presence of others, allow time to cry alone. It will relieve the pressure and help you to control your grief in social settings. Holidays are arbitrary but your grief has a life of its own and won’t always allow you to put it on hold.

Re-evaluate Family Traditions

This may help to blunt the sharp sad memories of how things used to be. Consider altering the way things have always been done. Design new rituals and traditions, or do something symbolic to memorialize your loved one.

You Are The Best Authority On Your Grief

During the holidays well meaning friends may try to help by keeping you busy or making sure you are never alone. It is important for you to determine for yourself what is best. Discuss your wishes with someone you trust. It will help clarify your needs and make it easier to explain what your limits are.

Spend Time With People You Trust

Try not to isolate yourself with your feelings. Friends who do not judge your behaviour, who allow you to talk about your grief and accept your feelings are invaluable. Ask them to help you guard against wearing them out! You will need to save their valuable help for the days ahead.

Recognize Your Physical and Psychological Limitations

Most people experience fatigue during grief. Don’t hesitate to excuse yourself from commitments you feel too tired or sad to attend. Keeping busy has its uses but also risks delaying or avoiding sadness that must be experienced to heal. Avoid places, situations and people you believe may cause you stress or anxiety. Instead allow time for simple activities that sooth and relax and provide creative outlets of your own choosing. Allow yourself to just ‘be’.

Use All Resources That Are Available To You

If you have a faith or religion that gives you comfort, this is a time to depend on it. A vacation in a new environment is not necessarily avoidance of a loss, it can help you feel alive again and somewhat involved with life. Sharing feelings with others, even strangers, who have had similar experience can give perspective and assure you that you will survive. Grief counselling in groups or individually can assist you in understanding your grief, and help you to cope with its manifestations. Above all, be kind to yourself and know that your pain is entirely appropriate, considering your loss. Grief comes as a result of love and is a tribute to your relationship.

Fall Transitions for Families

By Melanie Rathgeber, MC, MA, RCC

Families change over time and transition through different stages. In psychology, we use the term Family Life Cycles to describe the patterns of changes and transitions that most families go through. Transitions from one stage to the next are often where challenges are seen.[1]

The start of September can bring many transitions for individuals and for families. My nephew is leaving for university today and I can’t help but think of all the emotions it brings for him, as well as his parents. For him, it brings feelings of excitement, adventure, and independence. His parents of course have mixed emotions. They are proud and are confident they have prepared him well for this next stage in life. However, many of you will know that this time can also bring feelings of loneliness and sadness: the feelings that come with an ’empty nest’.

With any major life transition, we can experience excitement and anticipation. At the same time, we can expect there to be feelings of loss. Transitions signal a change in our identity — yes the building of a new identity, but also the loss of an old one. As with any loss, we experience new thoughts and emotions in order to adapt. We need to allow ourselves time and opportunities to reflect upon the past, and then to envision our life in our new reality. It can be tricky. For a while, we feel like we are going back and forth. Will my nephew feel like a brave young man setting out in the world, or will he feel like a child, needing the advice and guidance of his family? For a long time, he will likely feel both. He will waffle back and forth, and at times it will feel confusing, but eventually he will become more comfortable with his new identify while looking back fondly (but not forgetting) his life with his family.

For his parents, the feelings of loss will be more central. They will notice his absence in their daily lives; they will notice the difference in conversation at the dinner table; ; they will miss the sounds of banging drums coming from the basement (okay maybe they won’t miss that so much!). But underneath, there will naturally be feelings of excitement for them too, though they will not come as quickly or easily. There is excitement about pursuing new individual interests (or rekindling old ones), there are chances to reform a stronger bond as a couple, similar to the bond couples have before their children are born, and there are new traditions to build and to look forward to. There will be new weekend trips to visit their son. There will be holiday celebrations with special significance. Because after all, now when he comes home he will truly notice and appreciate how clean the house is, how good the cooking is, and how much he truly still needs to be part of his family, just in a slightly different way.

If you are experiencing a life transition and want to learn more about feelings associated with loss and change, you are welcome to book a counselling appointment or consultation with Melanie.


[1]Gerson, R. (1995). The family life cycle. Phases, stages, and crises. In Mikesell RH, Lusterman, DD & McDaniel S. (Eds.). Handbook of family psychology and systems theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Gerson, R. (1995). The family life cycle. Phases, stages, and crises. In Mikesell RH, Lusterman, DD & McDaniel S. (Eds.). Handbook of family psychology and systems theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Learning from Yourself

by Melanie Rathgeber, MC, MA, RCC

One of the questions I often ask clients is “What can you learn from another area of your life?”.

Clients usually can name what skills or strategies have worked well for them in the past, it’s just that when they have low mood or are anxious, it can be hard to tap into what they know works.  If I can get them to think outside of their current challenge or situation, it can become clearer.

For example, if a client is feeling worried about a family situation and having a hard time managing the anxiety, I might ask “How do you manage anxiety in your career?”.  Even though it is a different area of life, the strengths are often transferable.

In counselling, we often think about different areas of life, or domains, such as:

  • Immediate family
  • Extended family
  • Marriage or intimate relationships
  • Friendships and social life
  • Community
  • Wellbeing and lifestyle
  • Career, employment or education

Even though our roles in these varied areas may feel different, it can still help to draw upon successes we’ve achieved in those areas. Sometimes even just pausing to think about a past success, or something you are proud of, can give you enough of a boost to feel a bit more hopeful about your current situation.

A few more examples that you may be able to ask yourself:

  • “How have I successfully handled similar situations in my workplace?”
  • “How did I manage to make changes in my lifestyle (exercise, leisure activities, healthy living, etc.)?”
  • “What tools or strategies did I use when I was feeling overwhelmed by all my community responsibilities?”

You might not find a direct answer, but think about the skills and strengths that have helped you in those other areas of life. How can you draw out that same underlying attribute for your current challenge? One small shift in thinking can help you to realize and to believe that you do indeed possess the skills to manage, to cope, to change, and to succeed. Learning to identify those skills and to draw them out — learning from yourself — is a good step.

Melanie offers individual counselling sessions at Rocky Point Wellness Clinic on Mondays and Fridays. Click here to learn more about Melanie.

Learning to Manage

by Melanie Rathgeber, MC, MA, RCC

I just recently completed some training with a specialist in complex grief and loss. It reminded me that there are many types of loss (for example, loss of choices, loss of routines, loss of independence), and that some sort of loss often underlies the issues that people discuss in counselling.

Since the course, I’ve been reflecting on why counselling can be so helpful for loss. The theme that keeps coming up for me is that no matter what the loss is, there are ways that we can learn to manage it.

I like this phrase, “learning to manage”, as opposed to “learning to cope”. Learning to manage means we can start to gain more control. We can choose how we talk about the changes we are going through. We can build strategies that help us control how we act in relation to our new reality. Over time, we may even be able to choose how we feel about the changes. None of this is easy and the path will look different for every person, but it is possible to learn how to manage the impact of the loss.

I always tell clients about the importance of hope, and that counselling is likely to work if they begin to feel more hopeful. When it comes to dealing with changes and loss, I emphasize to clients that there are ways to manage the impact loss has on us. Clients have told me that as soon as they begin to manage in small ways, they are hopeful they can learn to manage in bigger ways.

Melanie offers individual counselling sessions at Rocky Point Wellness Clinic on Mondays and Fridays. Click here to learn more about Melanie.