Has Thanks Left Thankfulness?
By: Annette Williams, Ph.D., LPC, RPT, CAS, NCC
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Stores are preparing for Black Friday, customers wait in anticipation for the perfect holiday deals, families debate over where to host Thanksgiving; and hold discussions regarding a vegan holiday or the traditional turkey. What joy or is it.
For some, there’s another side. There are no Black Friday discussions, no debates about where to dine for Thanksgiving, because the local soup kitchen is their only option. And the issue of meat vs. no meat is non-existent because the soup kitchen chooses.
Let me be transparent, I love the holiday season because this is the time of year when I give myself permission to enjoy foods I don’t generally indulge in during the year. I also enjoy getting together with family, reminiscing, napping, and repeating the process. But this year is different. August 28, 2022, I lost my youngest sister to an unknown illness. And I admit, she was the planner, the organizer and the person who’d create the games for our family to play when gathered. And although there hasn’t been much discussion about what this year’s family gathering will resemble or if there will be one, I have one sibling who has expressed that if we gather, she will not participate because “the gatherings won’t be the same.”
I contemplated her sentiments and empathized, recognizing that her grief and sadness led her to a place of equating the present with an exact replica of the past. But let’s be honest, there is no exact replication when the players change.
So, I asked her, “Do you plan to spend this holiday season grieving?” She thought about this and paused.
Let’s be clear, grief is a natural response to trauma and loss, and I am not suggesting or implying that an individual has no right to grieve. However, there are some who intentionally plan to grieve: this seems farfetched but it’s true! They know that the anniversary of a loved one’s passing, a birthday, a special occasion, or the memory of a traumatic event is forthcoming, and they do nothing to circumvent or manage the triggers associated with that event beforehand.
In my practice, I see clients who brace themselves for triggering moments. That is, some concede to their emotions; they cry, become angry, depressed, regroup, and move forward. Others hope the event will pass them over and they walk away unscathed (denial). Others park themselves in grief indefinitely, never moving past the word go. It’s this parking that affords grief to permeate, depression sets in and hence, grief remains.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)* indicates that typically, when an individual experiences grief and the symptoms associated with it last less than 6 months, this is classified as uncomplicated grief.
More closely, World Psychiatry (2020) suggests that in an uncomplicated grief process, painful experiences are intermingled with positive feelings, such as relief, joy, peace, and happiness that emerge after the loss of an important person. Frequently, these positive feelings elicit negative emotions of disloyalty and guilt in the bereaved (Zisook and Shear, 2020).
To sum up, a person experiencing uncomplicated grief can bounce back to his normal routine. But what if this isn’t the case? What if the person can’t bounce back and finds himself grieving longer than 6 months up to 1 year? In this case, the DSM classifies this as complicated grief and at this point, the grief becomes a diagnosable form of depression. For example, an individual may be diagnosed as having an adjustment disorder which means that they are having an abnormal response to stress that is time-limited and is best treated with psychotherapy. If diagnosed with prolonged grief disorder, an individual has profound and debilitating feelings of loss. “The condition has also been referred to as complicated, traumatic, chronic, or pathological grief. The hallmarks of prolonged grief include significant emotional distress and changes to a person’s level of functioning” (Thriveworks, 2022).
So, what can you do to be proactive in identifying and managing triggers associated with grief?
If you are at a loss, here are some tips to help you in your journey:
- Have a plan
- Do something for others
- Ask for help
- Have a lifeline
- Plan celebrations
- Join a support group well in advance
Have a Plan
This seems cliché, but truly, there are individuals who have no planning skills, many who don’t know where to begin the planning process and some who don’t plan at all. Failing to plan is a recipe for disaster. So here are some suggestions for continuing the planning process or taking the first steps.
- Don’t wait for the triggering moment to arrive and react. Be proactive; mentally prepare yourself for the event 60 to 90 days in advance. This window can include meeting with a therapist who will help you create and execute a protective plan. More importantly, you can process your feelings with a trained professional who is non-judgmental, caring, and compassionate. But be warned, a good therapist will hold you accountable for adhering to the plan’s goals and objectives. This is the purpose of attending therapy.
- If you aren’t the therapy type, be your own therapist! Purchase a planner or wall calendar, scribe the events that trigger you and plan something special around them. Also, if you are a do it yourselfer, purchase and read self-help books by mental health professionals or lay persons who have walked your path. Use their knowledge and insight to help you create your recovery plan.
Food for thought: sometimes we stay stuck in our own thoughts and fears and our thoughts and fears hold us hostage to what we attempt to flee. In this case, be open to change; seek and use professional help to aid you in crossing hurdles.
Do Something for Others
It doesn’t take long for the walls to close in if we sit and do nothing. Get outside where there are no walls! There are plenty of Veterans, homeless individuals, women’s shelters, foster children, prisoners, elderly, and sick who’d love to hear from you!
If you are interested in volunteering, go to VolunteerHouston.org (or use your city name) to locate volunteer opportunities. Volunteerism is freeing and opportunities are endless. This means you can volunteer 24 hours a day 7 days a week if you’d like. What a way to work through your grief.
Consider volunteerism as a lifestyle change and not just a fleeting opportunity to do good. The socialization that results through volunteering does wonders for a broken spirit. The camaraderie of meeting and working with others brings a sense of belonging and worth so get busy!
Three years ago, I met a woman who lost her husband to cancer. They had a long marriage and she shared that his death left her hopeless. One day, she visited a local nursing home and saw the sad faces of the residents. At that moment, she determined that her mission was to bring joy to their lives. She organized cards she had received over the years and asked her peers to do the same. She repurposed the faces of the cards making new ones and thus started a card making and delivery service to nursing centers across Houston. Not only did she start this initiative, but she also recruited other widows and they formed a card making business. How cool is that? When I met her, she was bubbly and eager to share her story with anyone who’d listen and since that time, myself and a few others adopted her idea and created our own card making and distribution initiative.
Ask for Help!
John Donne said, “No man is an island, and no man stands alone” and this is true! No matter how much you convince yourself that “I got this” or believe you function better solo, there comes a time in each of our lives when we need to hear kind words from others or at least need someone to bounce ideas on. The “island” mentally is isolation mentality which leaves us in our stinkin’ thinkin’.
So, asking for help allows you to hear what others think about a subject matter, leading to objectivity. When asking for help, seek individuals who are positive, knowledgeable, honest, and empathetic. Asking for help or seeking advice from someone who has a personal agenda may lead to your emotional bank becoming insufficient and this isn’t what you seek.
Also, a transference situation may become a countertransference matter and there’s no productivity in that. Dispelling myth: Asking for help doesn’t make one weak nor does it imply that you are incapable of making appropriate decisions or choices. It means that you are human, that you’ve hit a roadblock and need fresh thoughts or suggestions. Where’s the harm in that? So, get over yourself and seek like-minded people who can support you in your time of need.
Adding to this, if you consider suicide, scream loudly, call a friend, or dial 988 which is the suicide hotline. You have so much to offer. You just need help putting your worth in place.
Have a Lifeline
This correlates with asking for help, but the lifeline I reference is a designated go-to person(s) or organization that genuinely serves as a line for your life! I have a few lifelines I can count on. I know when I call them, they will tell me what I need to hear as opposed to what I want to hear, and I always encourage them to tell me the truth no matter how difficult hearing it is. The goal here is to become stronger, better, and improved.
Regardless as to whether this is a celebration for a passed loved one, a celebration for yourself or a celebration in general, make it fun, festive, and memorable because this is your opportunity to turn tragedy into triumph!
Plan a social gathering or commemorative trip with vested peers who love and support you. The benefit of vested peers is that they are in the relationship for the long-haul.
Here are some noteworthy ideas for commemoration:
- Plant a tree
- Host a community gathering with finger food
- Donate in honor of your loved one
- Participate in an annual race, plan a fun day, or dedicate a particular day of the week to do something in memory
Join a Support Group
There are several support groups that meet throughout the year and these groups are a healthy way of meeting others who share similar experiences.
If you go to Google and type in “grief support groups” in your town or community, a plethora of groups will populate, but do your due diligence to locate the group that fits your needs.
Also, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other support groups as such meet consistently throughout the year and even if you don’t have a substance abuse problem, group meetings offer a wealth of knowledge and core skills to help anyone in need. You’ll also find recovering individuals who’d love to sponsor or befriend you, recognizing they were where you are now. Be open and attend.
Yes, I am saddened by my sister’s passing and I have had a few rough weeks since that time. But what I recognize is that her passing and all that she left behind opened doors for new opportunities and continued experiences. For instance, we volunteered to help others together, we collected clothing for local shelters and attended missions’ trips together.
These works will continue; they brought us much joy and will continue bringing joy! So, as I enter this holiday season, I am still thankful despite my loss. I am thankful for my health and strength, a loving family and my village that supports me unconditionally.
Each day I wake up, I rise with the thought of doing something exciting; something new and bringing joy to others. I recognize that life is short, and therefore, I chose living a constructive life. When my thanks left my thankfulness the day my sister was pronounced deceased, I was FULL of sorrow, FULL of despair, FULL of heartache and pain, but now that thanks and fulness are reunited, I live each day as if it is my last. I plan to make other people’s lives a bit happier by being what I hope to see in them. I take nothing for granted, realizing that my life could be worse, but I’m thankful that it isn’t.
Take this time to reunite your thanks with fulness so you too can enjoy the beauty of this life.
If you are interested in learning more or scheduling an appointment with Dr. Williams’ private practice, contact Dr. Annette Williams at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit her website: https://www.williamscounselingplaytherapy.com
Thriveworks (2022). Uncomplicated bereavement & prolonged grief disorder DSM-5: Causes, symptoms, treatment, Pg. 1.
World Psychiatry (2020). Are grief and depression the same? Severe grief puts you at a heightened risk of developing depression, Pg. 2.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is an authoritative guide to aid mental health and medical professionals in diagnosing mental health conditions and disorders. This guide has been revised many times over the years and these revisions are necessary for assessment and treatment and evolving psychiatric literature. In short, for mental health professionals, medical professionals, schools of counseling, psychology, and psychiatry to work in tandem, collaboratively, and/or concurrently, diagnostic and classification criteria must be unison, reliable and valid. This alignment and cohesiveness support academics and training, treatment approaches, assessment, medication management and client outcomes. But beyond this, uniformity, validity, and reliability also support seminal research and funding, insurance participation, provider disbursements and more.