What about Bob?

Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Dr. Kanner | Sadness during the HolidaysNot everyone is happy when the holiday season approaches especially if he or she has withstood some sort of crisis or loss over the past year.  The loss of a loved one, a divorce,  or significant changes in one’s health or occupational status can cause feelings of shock, despair, sadness, or even depression.  For any individual going through one of these possible conditions, the festivities of the season may intensify strong uncomfortable feelings.  For these individuals, spending time with loved ones, friends, and trying to find activities to help them feel better are important.

The role of close friends is important during this time, but most people are uncertain as how to best help a friend in need.  For people going through grief, the warmth of a friend can be very comforting and helpful.  Inviting a friend in need over for a holiday celebration, trying to spend some special time together, and even buying them a special and meaningful gift can help someone in need cope better with a recent setback.

Should a close friend try to get the one going through a tough time to talk about it?  Regarding discussions about grief or loss, it is important to consider that children and adults are in different developmental and psychological states and will manage crises differently.  Although the grief process is the same, the capacity to tolerate affects and feelings are different.  Understandably, adults are more mature and typically will be able to talk about their feelings more readily, while children experiencing grief are usually in extensive defensive operations in order to continue to cope.  In other words, it will take children much longer to talk about their grief experiences than adults and should NOT be pushed to do so.  They will open up when ready as long as they are in a supportive and loving environment.

In reference to adults in grief states, it is very important that their friends do express their sympathy and allow an opportunity to talk about their feelings, but don’t be too pushy.  Some people find it easier to talk than others while some individuals need some personal time before they are ready to talk.  In either case, the friend is offering a supportive environment to grieve which will assist the friend in getting through the process and help them get through the initial period of shock. 

What are typical grief reactions to expect from their friend?  During the time spent with friends experiencing grief, one must expect inconsistencies in both thought and feeling.  Confusion, memory problems, mood swings, irritability, sadness, crying, anger, and even laughter are all expected during the initial phase of a grief reaction.  Supportive friends who expect these types of manifestations are both better prepared and helpful by tolerating such alterations in mood and thought.  Over time, such emotional swings will lessen and the person will eventually return to their previous state of mind, but this could take up to 3 months. 

What else can I do to help them?  Aside from being supportive and available, it is also important that as a friend, you try to keep your suffering friend on their daily track.  Here, continuing in daily planned activities, including holiday plans, are important in helping the grieving in witnessing that life continues and when they can experience their capacity to manage everyday tasks, it increases their confidence that they will overcome the crisis and move ahead in their life. 

Am I going to be affected by their loss?  Finally, when helping others work through their grief, it may also reawaken one’s own experiences with loss which though saddening, can also lead to a greater awareness and understanding of their friend’s experience and provide greater empathy.

Key Points:

  1. Reach out to your friends in need.
  2. Encourage adults to talk about their losses and troubles but NOT young children.
  3. Children will talk when they are ready and will need support-let them know you are there when they are ready.
  4. Thoughts and emotions are inconsistent for up to 3 months for people going through crisis or loss.
  5. Help your friends keep activities on schedule to help functionality.
  6. Grief in others reawakens past experiences of one’s own grief which can cause temporary sadness but also can increase the level and degree of empathy towards that friend’s experience which can be mutually healing.

One final note.  Often times when a person is experiencing grief over the Holidays, there is an increase in the use of alcohol and prescription drug usage to “help” manage suffering.  The result is often a worsening of symptoms, not an improvement.  Encouraging exercise, a good diet, and even doing something refreshing or new, like going to a funny movie, is a much healthier choice.
______________________________________________________________Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Keith Kanner

Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.  Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.


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