November 11, 2022

Episode 293: Grieving During the Holidays with Dr. Jennifer Levin

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Most of us “should” all over ourselves during the Holiday season…

“I should be happy.”

“My experience should be like what my friends are posting on social media.”

This is especially true when it comes to grieving.

Whether your loved one died 2 weeks ago or 10 years ago, the holidays can be so hard.

The relief doesn’t last long when you overeat or drink through the pain. But chances are, nobody has taught you an alternative way to work through grief.

That’s why I interviewed Jennifer Levin, a traumatic grief expert, on today’s podcast. She’s sharing 4 tips for growing through grief during the holidays.

Listen to Episode 293: Holiday Grief, an Interview with Dr. Jennifer Levin today and share it with someone you know who needs to hear it.

Transcript

Corinne:

Hi, I’m Corinne. After a lifetime of obesity, being bullied for being the fattest kid in the class and losing and gaining weight like it was my job, I finally got my shit together and I lost 100 pounds each week. I’ll teach you no bullshit weight loss advice you can use to overcome your battle with weight. I keep it simple. You’ll learn how to quit eating and thinking like an asshole. You stop that and weight loss becomes easy. My goal is to help you lose weight the way you want to live your life. If you are ready to figure out weight loss, then let’s go.

Hello, everybody. Welcome back. Well, I have a special treat for everyone today. We’re going to talk about a light subject called grief, but I have someone that I’ve been working with for a while. Her name’s Jennifer. She’s on the podcast. I’ll let her introduce herself in just a moment. But she’s a traumatic grief coach, and so I’m going to let her talk more about what all that means. But I was telling her that it would be great during the holidays to have a podcast that deals with grieving because one of the things that I know that comes up from just personal experience is holidays are one of those times that just automatically trigger us to have lots of memories. We miss people. If you’re still in deep into a grieving process, it’s really hard to enjoy them. Or a lot of times we’ll spend time during the holidays eating and drinking our way through them to cope with the loss of the people that we love most.

I’ve watched my mom do this. I don’t know how many of my listeners know, but she suddenly lost her brother last year. My uncle probably was undiagnosed autism. We knew for a long time that Uncle Edwin, he never could really live on his own. So he lived with my grandmother for all his life until my grandmother died. And then my mom had promised to take care of my uncle. And so he lived with her for a lot of years after my grandmother had passed. And then one day woke up and was having a really wicked headache and sweating. And my uncle was the kind of person, you never knew if anything was wrong with him because he would never say. And he was like, “Call 911. Something is wrong with me.” He was dead within a few days. At some point, he probably had bumped his head and had a brain bleed. And then when he went in for surgery, he never woke back up.

This happened over a year ago and the holidays last year, my mom did okay. She really missed him. I feel like this year may even be harder for her. It’s almost like she’s in the part now where things have settled. And so I wanted to do a podcast for all of you who, as we were coming out of COVID, lots of people have lost people, something that you can listen to that might be helpful to give you some peace, some comfort, or at least give you some other things to consider so that you’re not just eating and drinking your way through your holidays to deal with your grief. So let me introduce Jennifer, who’s here. Just tell them all about you and anything that they need to know before we dive into grief.

Jennifer Levin:

Great. Well, thank you so much for having me here. My name is Jennifer Levin and I work with individuals who have experienced a sudden and unexpected loss and I help them go through the pain and trauma and move towards healing. I have a business called From Grief to Growth, and that’s what I specialize in. I like to say you wake up on a Tuesday and your life looks like one thing and you get a phone call, you find out that something has happened and everything has changed and your world has completely fallen apart because someone you love has died suddenly and unexpectedly and without warning and you have absolutely no idea where to get started. You’re in shock and you’re numb and you just really have absolutely no idea where to go from here. I’ve been doing this for many, many years. I started off as a grief therapist. I’m licensed in both the State of Washington and California, but I work with individuals nationwide in sudden and traumatic loss.

Let’s just jump in and start talking about why grief is so hard during the holidays because the holidays actually are the hardest for everyone, whether or not you are grieving. Depression is the highest during the holidays, but when you are grieving, it’s absolutely the hardest time of the year.

Corinne:

Why do you think that is? What is it about the holidays that seems to be so triggering and activating for grief? Is it just the memories? Is it like a cascade of things?

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah. Well, when we think of the holidays, we think about it’s this time when we should be happy, when we should be rejoicing, we should be celebrating. There’s so many things, expectations that we have about the holidays and we think about all of the holidays that we’ve been through in the past and they’re full of memories of our loved ones who were there with us previously, the reminders of all of our previous happy times. And that’s when we feel the absence of those who are no longer with us the most. And it doesn’t matter if… I mean, my grandfather has been dead for over 20 years and I feel his absence, I feel his absence a lot, but it’s so much around the holiday season. And so whether your loved one died two weeks ago, 10 years ago, the holidays are so hard.

As I mentioned, they’re full of these expectations that the holidays are going to be wonderful. I mean, I think the media has done us such a disservice. There’s commercials about what your house is going to look like. You look through the windows of these family dinners and everyone’s together and joyful and having these wonderful holiday dinners and everything’s perfect. That’s so far from the truth of what the majority of people are really experiencing. And if you’re grieving, the holiday season can seem so cruel. And so many of the people that I work with start dreading the holidays months in advance. There’s so much anticipation, so much dread of how am I going to do this? How am I going to get through it? And if you’ve actually experienced the death of someone anytime near the holiday season, it’s so much worse.

Corinne:

It’s like the double whammy.

Jennifer Levin:

It’s the double whammy, yeah, absolutely.

Corinne:

It’s so funny you say all this because even though I have my son, but when you talk about holiday expectations and stuff, that was really hard for me for years. The listeners, most of them know that my son’s autistic and the holidays, he’s never liked them. When I was growing up, holidays were such a big fucking deal in my family. We were broke and we were poor, but my mother did everything possible to make sure that Christmas, at least Christmas, that we got some presents and that it was special. It was just a big deal. Well, my kid never liked it and I was in a position to give him anything he wanted and he never wanted anything. I remember Christmas after Christmas, it just felt like every year, it was getting harder and harder for me to even like Christmas because I knew that Logan would come downstairs and he would avoid the living room for hours, want to have nothing to do with it.

He didn’t like presents, he didn’t like the wrapping, he didn’t like any of the experience. I remember many years being really sad because all I wanted was that perfect Christmas. I wanted what all my friends were posting on Instagram and on Facebook and stuff. And then here I was like, it was just like a nothing burger. We tried everything we could to make Christmas every other day and it was hard. I think that’s a good point that you bring up that especially for those of us who are grieving loved ones and stuff, there’s this dissonance between what society tells us the holidays are supposed to look like and then what our lived experience really is.

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah, and I’m glad you said that. I think there’s a disappointment for so many people about the holidays, grieving or not. The expectations are so high and so it’s just a really difficult time of the year.

Corinne:

Well, I know that you have some of the biggest grief triggers that people have during the holidays. Can you just talk us through some of those things so that… Because I really believe for… Like what I teach inside the No BS, just the weight loss program is when we can just notice and normalize why we’re being so triggered and activated or why we feel so sad or why we feel so upset, it’s helpful to understand why that’s happening so that we kind of take the temperature down. It’s not that we’re going to feel better, but sitting around feeling like something’s wrong with you because you’re not happy or sitting around confused why, it’s like, “Why aren’t I happier? Why don’t I feel better?” That’s hard in and of itself. So I think even just giving them some of these points will be really helpful. So what do you think are some of those biggest triggers?

Jennifer Levin:

The holiday is full of triggers and landmines and a lot of them have to do with annual traditions, things that we do once a year. And traditions are a sense of belonging, they’re a sense of community, and we want that so bad, especially right now in our world. I think a lot of people are feeling so disconnected and so isolated and the holidays are a sense of community, a sense of belonging and traditions and rituals represent that. And it’s something we do once a year and we want those traditions and we want that comfort that traditions represent. And so here come the holidays and here come these traditions that provide us a sense of comfort and belonging, which is often why we actually crave certain foods during the holiday because they’re associated with these traditions and they provide us an opportunity to recreate memories with our loved ones, which may not be here anymore, our loved ones. And they provide us meaning and ways to cherish those memories.

And so those are huge, huge triggers, these traditions, which we may not be able to do like we used to, or they represent painful, painful memories. And so when it’s time to do a tradition that we can’t do because our loved one’s not here, it brings up this intense sadness and intense emptiness and our grief just goes on huge, huge overdrive. So the one thing is the traditions that come up, that’s a huge trigger. Another trigger is watching everyone else seem happy or what we think is, oh, everybody’s experiencing all this joy and that makes us feel really lonely and emptiness or empty and lonely and we’re left out. FOMO is on major overdrive during the holiday season, especially if we’re grieving.

Corinne:

I also think, to just hang there for a moment, it’s not even what you see on social and what’s going on, but… I know this was hard for my mom when her dad died, my grandfather, we all loved my papa. You were talking about your grandfather. My grandfather was like my dad. We all grieved him. We all grieved him in our own ways. But my mother, it was really hard for her. It wasn’t sudden. He was dying of cancer. But man, she had a rough time. And that first holiday, I can see why it was so overwhelming for her because for me, I had kind of made peace with his death. I just had such a different outlook on it. My grieving process was very different and I was ready.

My husband and I were dating, I was ready for Christmas and to enjoy it and celebrate my first one with Chris and all this other stuff. I can see why it was probably really hard for my mom, almost devastating because she’s like, “I don’t feel like y’all. And you’re all moving on and you’re all happy, why can’t I be that way?” So that’s just interesting just from my own personal experience.

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah. You were looking forward and she was looking back.

Corinne:

Very much.

Jennifer Levin:

And that’s also a generational thing with grief. Younger people tend to be more resilient in their grief because they have a forward orientation. Not to say they’re not struggling and not grieving in their own way, but when you’re older, you’re looking back and you have way more memories to process and to sort through and to grieve and when you’re younger-

Corinne:

That is really interesting. I never really thought about like, from my mom’s perspective, she had 50 years or 40 something years of memories to contend with and things to miss. Whereas, I just had 20 something years worth and a whole life ahead of me to live. So that’s interesting.

Jennifer Levin:

And look forward to.

Corinne:

Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah, absolutely.

Corinne:

What else were you going to say? Because I interrupted you. You were saying something about the younger people, we tend to be more resilient and all this other stuff. And then what is it with the older generation not as resilient or…

Jennifer Levin:

Well, it’s not that they’re not resilient, it’s just they’re more… The younger generation, like I said, has the forward orientation and looking forward and their future is ahead. I mean, actually, some of the younger people I work with are in that launch, and this is a totally different tangent here, but some of the people that I work with in their twenties actually really do struggle because they’re in that launching phase. And if they lose somebody suddenly, they really are really struggling because they’re getting ready to launch. And if they might lose a spouse suddenly in their twenties, it’s really, really hard initially because they were getting ready to have a family, buy a home, do something, and their immediate future plans are just, as you would say, in the shitter.

Corinne:

Yeah.

Jennifer Levin:

And it’s really, really hard. But after a while, they can reimagine a future for themself after doing work. When you are in your seventies and you lose somebody suddenly and experience a sudden loss, you have a different forward orientation in terms of what you see for your future goals. So it’s a very different perspective.

Corinne:

Because I’m no grief expert, you are, but it almost feels like sometimes maybe there’s just different flavors of it, especially if you’re younger, like somebody in their twenties, thirties, or forties. One of my clients lost her husband suddenly and she was I think 52 when it happened. He had a heart attack playing golf. I remember getting the text. I mean, it was shocking for all of us. And it’s like you not only are grieving the person, but you’re grieving what you thought life was going to be like.

Jennifer Levin:

Your future.

Corinne:

Yeah. I grieved, like I didn’t lose Logan physically, but I went through a huge grieving process. I had this idea of what my life as a mother, his life would look like. And then when he got diagnosed, I spent a long time grieving what… I had to get over this idea of what I thought things were going to be like. I needed time to process that before I could even start really now creating a new future separate from the one I thought I was going to have. So that’s interesting.

Jennifer Levin:

Absolutely.

Corinne:

What is the other point you were going to say? So tell me this, what are some of the ways… Like we know how we get triggered and stuff.

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah.

Corinne:

So tell me some of the ways that we can actually make it easier on ourselves. Because I do think that’s important because I know my people and they’re like, “Oh, I’ve got an answer. I’m grieving. Let’s have Oreos.”

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah. I’m glad you asked. I actually have several suggestions on how you can make the holidays easier for yourself. So first thing, and I think you’re going to be in alignment with this is, have a plan for your holiday.

Corinne:

Amen, sister.

Jennifer Levin:

I thought you’d like that. But here’s the important part is you have to have a plan that’s in alignment with your grief. So let me explain what I mean by this. So where are you in your grief right now? If it’s so early on, maybe your plan this year is to skip the holidays because you just can’t do a tree, light the menorah, or whatever your holiday plans are. And the thought of celebration is just not where you’re at. And I have people say, “I have to skip the holidays.” Maybe you are going to do a short holiday. I always tell people, have a plan, allow yourself to change the plan at the last moment. I always encourage, drive yourself so you can leave if you need to. Decide who you want to be with, decide who you don’t want to be with, but be intentional with your holiday plan. Don’t wing it because you can get yourself in trouble.

Corinne:

Can I just say?

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah.

Corinne:

I think that is so important. One of the things that we’re doing inside the membership is we always do handling the holidays, which is I just talk to them about having a plan for people who aggravate the shit out of you and for your food. Like, what foods do you want to be having? Don’t just eat shit because it’s there. Actually do all that. I love that being intentional about creating some emotional safety for yourself, figuring out how you’re going to show up, where it feels like… I would just encourage all of you who are listening to this to really write that plan out on a piece of paper and craft it, go back to it after a few days, read it again and come up with something that you feel in your body feels grounded, feels like this is me taking care of myself.

And I would just encourage all of you, don’t feel like you have to apologize to anybody for it either. If people are like, “Come on.” Whatever, just tell them. Like I would just look at people and say, “Hey, I’m just not there. This is what I’m doing for myself. This is what I figured out was the best way for me.”

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah. Okay. So I’ve got four tips I want to give. Okay. The other ones, decide what traditions you want to keep and what new ones you want to develop. So my grandma Marie made clam dip every single year when she was alive. And oh my gosh, we could not have a family gathering without Grandma Marie’s clam dip. Well, when she died, I was fortunate enough to inherit Grandma Marie’s dish for the clam dip and granted, we do not have a family gathering without Grandma Marie’s clam dip. And so that tradition goes, it was always there when she was alive and it’s there even though she’s not there. So that tradition carries on.

Now, I have clients that start new traditions after a loved one has died. Some clients set a place at the dinner table even though their loved one’s not there. Some say a prayer, some tell a story. You can do anything you want, but sometimes it’s really helpful to start a brand new tradition after a loved one has died. So decide what you want to keep and decide if you want to start new traditions to honor a loved one. Okay?

Corinne:

Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Levin:

Another one, set boundaries for yourself with your loved ones. And this is kind of what we talked about. Tell them what you need. Unfortunately, we do not live in a society that knows how to handle grief. We have to teach people how to treat us when we are grieving, and that sucks. It shouldn’t have to be our job, but it is. We have to tell people how we want to be supported. So many people are afraid to bring up our loved one’s name because they say things like, “Well, if you were having a good day, I didn’t want to upset you.” When we’re grieving, we’re always thinking about our loved ones. And my clients say all the time, “I love it when people bring up their name because I always want to talk about it.” But no one else brings up their name because they’re afraid of upsetting people.

So when you’re grieving, you have to tell people, “I want to talk about it or I don’t want to talk about it.” But you have to set boundaries and tell people what you need. I wish this wasn’t so, but it is. And so have a family meeting. Say what you need during the holidays.

Corinne:

Well, and I honestly, I don’t think that’s so terrible in this one way. It’s like we all go through life expecting people to read our minds about what we need and it’s like, I just don’t believe any other human is a mind reader. If they were, we’d all be doing a lot better than we are collectively. So it’s like in these cases, I think like what I tell my people all the time, if you need help with your food, if you need help with these things, you need to speak up and stop sitting around thinking people should behave a certain way. I think that’s so painful for you as a person when you are sitting and been like, everybody should be talking about it, everybody shouldn’t be talking about it. Instead of just like, “Hey, this is what I need.” Now, people will or will not respect you, but you definitely have 100% more chance of people respecting your needs when you verbalize them than to be sitting around expecting them to read your mind.

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And then the last tip I want to give, focus on the meaning of the holiday for you. This doesn’t have to be religious. Ask yourself, what do you want the holiday to be or mean for you this year? Do you want it to be time to spend with your family? Do you want it to be, “Hey, I want a break from work.” I’ve had clients say, “I just want to make it good for my kids. They’re struggling.” I do have clients who are religious and say, “I think it’ll help me to focus on the religious aspects.” Or do you want it to say, “I just want to pretend it doesn’t exist.” But again, ask yourself, what do you want the holidays to mean for you this year?

Corinne:

I think that’s really important. What I love about these tips is you’re being intentional about your needs. And I think that so often we go through life and we just expect ourselves to get over it, or we wonder why we’re not doing better than we are, or we wonder why other people aren’t being better than they are or whatever. I like that this really aligns with just even how I teach weight loss. We’re just going to sit and we’re going to use the part of our brain that cares about us to craft our needs. And then we’re going to go out and we’re going to ask for those. So tell me this, can you give some examples of activities that people can use, that their families can engage in in the holidays when they are grieving? This is where we actually get to do something y’all.

So we’re done with the thinking part. My listeners are always like, “All you do is talk about our thoughts.” I’m like, “Hell yeah, because our thoughts are really important.” But every now and then we actually get to talk about what we can do. So let’s go there.

Jennifer Levin:

Yes. So it can be a real healing experience if you participate in activities that honor your loved one during the holidays. Sometimes and especially if you’re early on in your grief, it might be painful and this might not be for you right now. Again, align where you are in your grief, but doing can be helpful. So let me give you some examples that my clients have done and found really helpful.

Shop for gifts for your loved one, donate it to charity. Make their favorite food, serve it at the holidays. Say prayers or toasts in their memory. We talked about an empty chair at the table. This is one of my favorites. Have a glass bowl, have people write down their favorite memories. Have a glass bowl with index cards, have people write down their favorite memories, put it in the index card and then read it during dessert, sharing the stories or memories. Hang stockings with your loved one and put little notes to them in their stocking. Volunteer or support a cause that was important to them. Or even make a holiday playlist of their favorite songs. So there’s lots of things that you can still do that honors them and even invites them into your holidays still.

Corinne:

We do a lot of… Like we cook a lot of the foods that my uncle or my grandparents love to eat. So we kind of kept their traditions. My mom still makes the dressing that my granny made from the cornbread recipe that my grandmother used. She still uses the cast iron skillet that my grandmother cooked so much with. So we do a lot of that. Even when I got married, my brother put a white rose in a chair where my grandfather would’ve been because he would’ve walked me down the aisle, but he had died. And so my brother walked me down the aisle instead. And so he carried a white rose in his memory. So that was very meaningful for me. So I think those are really good ways to just think about people and to do it in such a way that you just feel some love. Because I think at the end of the day when you’re grieving, you miss the love and being able to recreate moments where you can feel that love is I think what a lot of us crave.

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah.

Corinne:

So is there anything else that you want to tell us? Are there other things that we can either be thinking about or just anything that we need to know before we start all these wonderful holidays?

Jennifer Levin:

Yeah. A couple of things. Number one, holidays are just another day. If you’re really struggling, sometimes I tell people, just remember it’s 24 hours, the sun’s going to rise, the sun’s going to set just like any other day. For those of you who are just super, super dreading this year, it’s 24 hours. Okay? Build your tribe, call people if you’re really, really struggling, journal. I know Corinne will like that one.

Corinne:

I always like anything that has a good journaling prompt.

Jennifer Levin:

Yep, yep. Watch the alcohol. That can really, really get a good grief attack going. I talked to you about giving yourself permission to skip. And one of the things that I like to tell people or help remind them is, this hurts so bad because you loved so much. And we say that in the grief world that grief is another way of looking at love.

Corinne:

I think this is very helpful because really a lot of my clients tend to eat during the holidays. They eat a lot trying to escape their grief instead of being intentional about it, respecting it, understanding it. To me, that’s the most important things that you can do through the holidays. Because if you do all that eating and stuff, you’re not really giving yourself that opportunity to process that emotion that your body’s craving you to process. So I think that’s really important.

And then I think for all of you who are a No BS woman who are listening to this podcast, you have a community of support inside of our membership. Very often during the holidays, some of the most beautiful come together moments in our community happens in the Facebook group. When everybody is celebrating and you feel alone, please reach out in our Facebook group. You are not alone. This year, we have had so many of our women lose children, parents, spouses. I just want all of you to know that even if you feel alone and misunderstood in your “real life”, you can come to us. We have coaches and we have people inside our community that will be more than happy to just listen and talk with you and just be there for you.

All right. It’s very helpful. So I want you to tell us all the things, Jennifer. Like, how can they listen to you? If they are interested in reaching out to you, how do they do all of this?

Jennifer Levin:

Well, thank you. And by the way, I am a No BS eating woman, non-eating woman I should say. And I love the Facebook group and see everybody and the grief that’s going on in there as well. Well, I have developed, or I am having a holiday support program. It’s grief support throughout the holidays and preparation for the new year ahead. It starts on November 14th and it goes through January 2nd. The group program is going to cover topics such as finding meaning in the holidays, coping with loss during the holiday season, navigating difficult dynamics with family and friends. We didn’t even talk about that today. In the program, we’re going to develop those holiday plans that align with your grief. We’re going to talk about how to continue those traditions and start new rituals that honor loved ones. And we’re going to talk about planning for a new year without your loved one because that’s also a really important part is we struggle so much as how do I start a whole new year knowing that my loved one’s no longer there.

One of the great things about this program is I also provide support on Thanksgiving Day itself, New Year’s Eve Day and Christmas Eve Day. The groups are going to meet on Mondays at both 4:00 PM and 6:30 PM Pacific Central Time. I know we’re going to post all this in the notes, but you can go to my website, fromgrieftogrowth.com to sign up. I also have a podcast, Untethered: Healing the Pain from a Sudden Death. And it’s all things from sudden death and you were so great in giving me some advice about that. The first 10 episodes are all the basics about sudden death. And now I interview just kind of like we did today, have conversations with individuals who’ve experienced a sudden loss. And so you can hear their stories. And I also have conversations with professionals who are working with individuals who’ve experienced a sudden loss. And so you can learn more about that as well on my website, fromgrieftogrowth.com.

Corinne:

Well, I appreciate you being here. This is really good work you’re doing in the world. Much needed and-

Jennifer Levin:

Thank you.

Corinne:

… I just think that for our listeners in particular, I know that they got some help today that they very much need. So y’all check Jennifer out, fromgrieftogrowth.com. And y’all have an amazing week and I’ll talk to you soon.

Thank you so much for listening today. Make sure you head on over to nobsrecourse.com and sign up for my free weight loss training on what you need to know to start losing your weight right now. You’ll also find lots of notes and resources from our past podcast, help you lose your weight without all the bullshit diet advice. I’ll see you next week.

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I'm Corinne Crabtree

Corinne Crabtree, top-rated podcaster, has helped millions of women lose weight by blending common-sense methods with behavior-based psychology.

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