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How to deal with grief during the holidays

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's holiday time, and for most people, that means food, fun and spending time with friends and family. But what if you recently lost someone close to you? Or what if you feel a connection to one of the many conflicts going on around the world? How do you navigate what's supposed to be a joyous time of year when dealing with grief and loss? We asked Michelle Palmer, executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss & Healing in Washington, D.C., and she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MICHELLE PALMER: Hi, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You know, so a lot of us have been taught to think about grief in a certain way - you know, stages. There's this sort of linear process. But how do you think about it?

PALMER: I definitely don't think about it in a linear way. Grief is such an individual experience. We go back and forth and up and down and diagonally and around because grief - it is a lot of things, but what it is not is linear.

MARTIN: Yeah. Talk more about that - like, the different styles of grieving and why the holidays can be so tricky for people.

PALMER: Styles of grief - it is one of the things that people don't know, and I think it is one of the things that causes a lot of unnecessary pain and misunderstanding in relationships.

So there are two types or styles. One is intuitive. One is instrumental. So for our intuitive grievers, we know you're grieving because you show us it through your emotions. There's, you know, crying, anger. And the other side of that are instrumental grievers. Somebody who's got an instrumental grieving style, for instance, are our folks who put together a 5k race in honor of somebody or do a fundraiser for something because they experience their grief through doing.

Now we'll use an example because it's an easy one - of a couple. What often happens is in that couple, we are feeling isolated because our partner doesn't share our grieving style, and in fact, they're showing their grief in a very different way, and it makes us feel even more isolated. And so then what we see is judgment and a breakdown of communication. Our instrumental grievers are sort of in their tough moments - are like, why are you still crying? And our intuitive grievers in their tough moments are, like, why aren't you crying?

MARTIN: Yeah. What is your thought about how to or whether to continue certain traditions when you're in a time of grieving? For example, some people put up Christmas stockings, right? And if you've just lost the - a person and their Christmas stocking is there, like, what do you do? How do you advise people to navigate something like that?

PALMER: I think this evolves in terms of when the grief experience happens. And so there are some people that, in that first and second year, are like, I can't do any of the old traditions. It is, like, the third rail. It activates and triggers all sorts of hard things. And so if trying to - especially in that first and second year, trying to resurrect all of those old traditions is, like, hitting that third rail, then think about what are the conversations that need to happen ahead of time.

We want to have these conversations before we're emotionally elevated. And having that plan and having that conversation just in and of itself relieves some pressure and some fear. As we start to find a place in our lives that honors the people we've lost but allows us to continue living, we start to see this reintegration of tradition.

MARTIN: That is Michelle Palmer. She's the executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss & Healing. Thanks so much for talking us through this.

PALMER: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.