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A holiday to-don’t list for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19

Whether you are a health care worker beaten down by the pandemic, someone who has lost a loved one, there are ways to protect your physical and mental health during this season. 

A memorial commissioned by Illinois first lady M.K. Pritzker and Gov. J.B. Pritzker for the lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois, is illuminated for the first time on the north lawn of the Illinois governor’s mansion in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday, March 16, 2021,
A memorial commissioned by Illinois first lady M.K. Pritzker and Gov. J.B. Pritzker for the lives lost to COVID-19 in Illinois, is illuminated for the first time on the lawn in front of the governor’s mansion on Mar. 16.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Watching the days blur beyond the winter holidays, I find myself focused on the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives to COVID-19. The death toll of Americans is so large that it is nearly impossible for many of us to get our brains to process it, and has now passed 800,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, the internet is rife with downloadable “Holiday To-Do Lists,” because the web assumes everyone’s life is filled with glee this time of year. But if the pandemic took the life of someone close to you, you may be better served by creating your own “Holiday To-Don’t List.”

It’s important to protect your emotional and mental health at such times, and only you know what you need to take off of your plate.

As a nurse of 44 years, specializing in the area of grief and loss, and in the role of wellness liaison at Rush University Medical Center, my duty is to support staff and students and help them deal with and protect their own mental health. However, I find myself hyper-focused on the devastating impact of the large number of deaths on health care workers, patients and survivors.

Whether you are a health care worker beaten down by the pandemic, someone who has lost a loved one, or even one of the roughly 175,000 children in the U.S. who have lost one of both of their parents, I would like to offer you a short list of things that could protect your physical and mental health.

As an expert in grief and loss, I realize how important it is to be proactive. You will stop friends and family from worrying about you should you choose to forgo activities or events. And you will learn to lean into asking yourself what is best for you.

Don’t decorate. Look through your holiday decorations and consider what feels comfortable and brings gentle memories. No need to put out all the decorations if it makes your home feel heavy.

Don’t send holiday cards. Consider creating an email alerting friends/family that you will not be sending cards this year and you will look forward to hearing from them. If you do send cards and want to acknowledge your loved one, your signature can include: “and ____ always in my heart.”

Don’t attend every party. Carefully think about invitations to celebrate — try not to answer too quickly or you will find yourself responding in a way you believe people want to hear instead of how you truly feel. Will the host be supportive if you need to change plans? How large is the gathering? Will you feel safe — psychologically as well as physically from the risk of COVID-19?

Consider your own expectations. Do you have the energy to go? Does the idea of attending or participating fill your head with delight or despair? If it’s the latter, skip it. On the other hand, if you feel inspired to carry on a family tradition or could use the company of others, then put on your best duds and head on out.

Don’t worry about gifts. Can gift cards replace purchased gifts or can you move to a simpler gift-giving process? Even switch it up and give the gift of volunteering at a church or community event. Gratitude and the feeling of giving back may be the most powerful way to reach the “feel-good” center in your brain.

Don’t protect others from your grief. Allow yourself to laugh and cry. Honor those who have died. Even consider a special ornament on the tree, a candle or chair at the table.

Finding a balance between social isolation and safe gatherings should be your sweet spot.

Your loss changed your whole world. You are allowed to change your own rules to adapt. If someone asks what they can do to help make this time of year a little easier on you, be real.

Judy Friedrichs is a registered nurse and wellness liaison at Rush University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.