Grief itself is complex and in some ways, never ending. Whether it shows up in our lives expectedly or by surprise, the holidays can magnify its influence because we’re reminded of what we’ve lost, or perhaps, never had.
Join Jess and her guest, Kelsey Penkal, APSW, as they discuss grief during the holiday season and provide coping strategies for managing feelings of grief, loss, or loneliness.
If you are experiencing difficulty managing feelings of grief, please reach out to a friend or loved one to talk. You can also work with a mental health professional, like the one's at Insight Counseling and Wellness. For crisis support in Wisconsin, you can call or text the WI Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8. For those who are deaf and hard of hearing, you can text HAND to 839863 or call 573-303-5604 for videophone.
Produced by Jessica Warpula Schultz
Music by Jason A. Schultz
Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast. We're your hosts, Jessica Warpula Schultz and Jeanne Kolker. Whether you've tried everything to feel better and something is still missing or you've already discovered the wisdom of the body. This podcast will encourage and support you in healing old wounds, strengthening relationships, and developing your inner potential- all by accessing the mind body connection.
Please know, while we're excited to share and grow together. This podcast is not intended to be a substitute for mental health treatment. It doesn't replace the one-on-one relationship you have with a qualified healthcare professional and is not considered psychotherapy.
Thanks Jess. And thank you for listening. Now, let's begin a conversation about what happens when we take an integrative approach to improving our wellbeing.
Jess: Welcome to Insight Mind, Body Talk. My name is Jess. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, a trauma informed fitness expert, and your host.
Today's topic is coping with grief. During the holidays, our guest is Kelsey Penkal. Kelsey has over seven years of experience in the social work and mental health field, including working for non-profits, policy and advocacy work, navigating insurance and managed care, and most recently was service facilitation.
She obtained her MSW from Denver University in 2019 and just recently became an APSW. Kelsey practices from a holistic viewpoint and believes we must address the whole person in order to make positive change. She likes to work alongside clients to figure out how to best accomplish their goals, and Kelsey enjoys spending time outside in nature with her two dogs and plane kickball.
Kelsey: welcome. Thanks, Jess. Thanks for having me on the podcast today. I'm happy to be.
Jess: Yeah, I'm very glad you're here as well. When you approached me to discuss grief and the holidays, this topic was your idea. And I loved to bring it to our audience because, for many reasons, grief is complex and in some ways really right.
It's. Never ending. . So whether it shows up in our lives, expectedly or by surprise, the holidays can magnify its influence on our lives because we're reminded of what we lost. Or, as you and I talked about in our production meetings, sometimes even the grief about what we've never had.
And it's not like the holidays is an easy time for everyone. A lot of people experience suffering this time of year regardless of their experiences with loss and grief. November through January, it's very common to be pressured by others, to attend social gatherings. Healthy boundaries can get pushed and for a lot of us, old wounds can be triggered.
Which is why I'm glad you're here to talk more about the different dynamics of grief during an already stressful season. Before we begin, I like to ask each of our guests, I'm curious, what inspired your passion to help others cope with grief during the holiday season?
Kelsey: Yeah as you just said, grief is complicated.
And there's, it's so much more than just dealing with the death of a loved one. I like talking about this topic because I've experienced grief in many different ways in my life, and that feeling like that deep heartache and that pain is so intensified during the holiday season. And I also feel like it's something that's just not talked about enough.
So I'm really glad that we're able to talk about it now.
Jess: I completely agree. I think, just as a culture, we have a hard time discussing pain and discussing sorrow. Especially let's say during a season where there's a lot of pressure to feel happy and to be joyful and be merry or, to appreciate what we have and sometimes, I completely agree.
It leaves, it doesn't leave much space for loss and sorrow, which a lot of people are experiencing. So before we get into the holiday aspect of it, maybe we'll begin just with a brief introduction to grief itself. So you know, for example, what are the different types of grief that people could possibly experience?
Kelsey: I think the most common one we think about is death, and that could be death of family member, a friend, a loved one, or even a pet. But I know grief is so much more than just the death of a loved one we're focusing too on that loss of connection with yourself, your values, beliefs,
Also, you know, expected versus unexpected grief. expected would be if there is somebody, say a loved one who has died and you knew that this was going to happen and you had some time to come to terms with it. Mm-hmm. .. There's also the unexpected piece, which could be the unexpected loss of a loved one.
And it could also be, plans being changed last minute or expectations being changed. Just overall disappointments. Again, maybe a family or a friend has let you down and it's caused some feelings of hurt.
So all of these kind of fit in the realm of what we are talking about with grief.
Jess: Sure. You know, I appreciate that. Of course we talk about with grief, the death of, those who are close to us, but. I think you're right that loss of connection, and that can be like a belief we had about a relationship, or maybe a change and shift at work too, and so, to build off what you're saying about expected versus unexpected. When we conceptualize grief, I think in our offices with our clients, often people, you're right, talk more about traditional aspects of grief, but what we also know is that we experience so much grief around, hope and looking forward to things or maybe hoping for a change in our life or for a new beginning or a new relationship or things of that nature, and.
They don't work out and it's the holiday season. It, it can really, lead to isolation and lead to feelings of loneliness in a way we didn't even expect to happen. So I appreciate you bringing that up. Cause I don't think it's talked about very often.
What do you think are some of the most common symptoms of grief?
How does someone, besides, the traditional ways of thinking about grief, how would someone know that maybe they're experiencing grief?
Kelsey: Yeah, it show up in so many different ways for different people. I. Some of the kind of telltale signs of grief would be like these strong feelings of sadness where, so almost to the point where it hurts, like physically hurts an ability to focus and, just having a hard time, like gathering your thoughts.
Like definitely a lack of trust maybe within yourself and of other people. and what you've talked about, Jess, like feelings of loss or purpose or intention in life and maybe you're not quite sure what's next or like what's on the horizon for you. having a lot of consuming thoughts of what you've lost.
So whether it be a person, a thing, or some sort of. Part of your identity. So just like really being fixated and focused on what you've lost. And there could also be a denial of loss. So maybe you're just not quite ready to even acknowledge that. So you're just living in a state of denial.
And I think just having a general feeling of irritability or sadness that you can't seem to shake off. We walk around our lives and it's very common for us to get, irritated about something or slightly sad about something. And we can generally just shake it off after a few minutes.
But if it doesn't seem like that you can't find really the reason for it, or it's just lingering, then that's probably a sign that you're having some symptoms of grief. . ,
Jess: as a body worker, I also think about, the somatic experience or somatic response of grief. Aches and pains caused by increased release of stress hormones, our muscle.
Can be filled with tension after loss. And it's our body trying to figure out a way to cope or prepare for perhaps more threat or just that the strong emotions are causing that tension. And a lot of people talk with me about how their immune system is impair. During loss.
And we, we feel a little bit more worn down, fatigue, and even our gut health,
, sleeplessness and, grief can impact our sleep.
And so it's helpful to practice. Good sleep hygiene. , give ourselves plenty of time to wind down in the evening and consider how much we're on our phones before
And speaking of phones.
Jess: What do you think about like social media during this time?
I'd like to get your thoughts on, any tips for people around how social media and grief and the holidays mixed together.
Kelsey: yeah. Social media, that, that's a good one. So I think in general, people post the, all the happy pieces of their lives on social media, which is great. And there's definitely a time and place for.
Also though, around the holidays when you're already, if you're having these like really negative and hard feelings and you're experiencing tremendous amounts of grief when you're on social media and you're seeing all of these happy faces. Again, not knowing what's going on, behind the scenes for these folks, but just seeing all this happy imaging that's reinforcing these beliefs that you should be.
Holly Jolly and happy Overall, I think really pulling back from that and maybe limiting the amount of time that you're on social media is definitely going to be really helpful because that can create a toxic. toxic mindset, and it's not going to help. It's not gonna help those strong feelings that you're having.
Jess: Yeah. Yeah. I, yes, I agree. Social media sometimes, at least for me if I'm already in a place where I feel like I'm struggling or I'm doing a lot of comparing Social media sometimes just gets those thoughts going about what I don't have, , we're bringing this up to help normalize symptoms
So, kelsey, in your opinion, how do these symptoms of grief impact someone during a stressful time, like the holidays,
Kelsey: I think that those feelings, like those physical feelings, definitely.
Um, And maybe this is due to reminders of the loss that can maybe be a little more prevalent around the holidays. and your normal schedule and your usual kind of self care things that you do can sort of be set aside and even your coping strategies. feel less effective during this time.
So maybe what usually works like going on a 20 minute walk every day, maybe that's just not enough. . And I think there's also a. Kind of a questioning boundaries and having boundaries pushed to the side and not respected.
that can be coming from you and definitely from other people. And I think that. during the holidays in particular, people will find themselves in situations that they normally wouldn't put themselves in just to satisfy other people. So say, you attend a family function that you probably wouldn't choose to spend time with this family in any other situation.
It's can be toxic or there's some very strained relationships, but people will ignore that to make others happy. Yeah. And then also, having maybe feelings of. Shame because you should be enjoying the holidays and you're actually not, and maybe you just feel miserable, but there's this whole culture of Holly Jolly and being happy, but you're not feeling that.
Jess: . I think, when people aren't feeling happy, it makes others around them uncomfortable. And so those, , those kind of people pleasing parts come up where we don't wanna make others feel sad, so we maybe hide it or
Other people even pressure us to cheer up because it helps them feel better and yet that does deny where we're at. Right.
Kelsey: And I think of going along with that too, Jess, that there's this expectation if I ask you like, Oh Jess, how are you doing? Kind of the expectation is that you'll just say, I'm fine.
Yep. And I. That is even more difficult around this time of year especially when, , society is constantly telling us like, You should be fine. You should be able to just move past this or get over this . That's not the reality.
I think feeling on edge and ex having this overall sense of irritation, especially at things that might not normally bother you. Oh, totally. Yeah. So like for me, for example grief and it being magnetized around the holidays, I get very easily overstimulated.
So like lights and sounds can feel too bright and too loud. And just I can have an overall feeling of discomfort. So like maybe my clothes are bothering me, or it's like you can't get comfortable in your skin. And I will definitely have heightened anxiety. And overall physical, mental and emotional exhaustion and even some small things like can feel extremely difficult, like brushing my teeth or just like getting out of bed.
And this can become so much worse around this time of year. It can be hard.
Jess: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that because I think it helps anyone listening helps, validate and normalize that things can become magnified. So you're right.
What felt like doable maybe in October or this summer doesn't feel doable right now. The, when we think about our window of tolerance, let's say polyvagal theory, love that theory and we talk about. how
Our ability to tolerate things shrinks under, different types of stress. And so I can imagine someone who's already experiencing grief or feels like they've maybe made it through the first or second, or. Wave of grief that during a season where it's, focused on memories, focused on traditions, focused on rituals, for many different faiths and people that their ability to tolerate the smaller things may shrink.
And that's a real normal experience. So you may feel more irritable, you may feel more lonely, And that's okay. That's okay. And that's part of why we're here is to normalize the experience of grief in the holidays. So in, in light of how difficult it can be to experience or to be reminded of loss, what would you suggest our listeners maybe try or experiment with to cope with grief during the season?
Kelsey: I think giving yourself first and foremost, giving yourself permission to do less or to do things differently. , that's way easier said than done. But at the end of the day, you have to take care of yourself. And if that means you show up differently for yourself and for people around the holidays, then that's what you need to do.
And going along with that, just allowing yourself to feel whatever emotions are coming up and like that concept of riding the wave. These intense negative emotions can come in crashing and just a huge wave and it can blindside you but just knowing that eventually, It's going to pass and you will start to feel better. Hopefully you'll start to feel better. Yeah, once that kind of settles a little bit and, creating your own rituals and honoring. Loved ones or friends who have passed and, maybe creating your own ritual.
Looks like you spend a holiday by yourself or you choose a different group of people to celebrate with. Whether it be like other family or friends or people that, a faith community, people that are important to you. And, acknowledging that the holidays they're going to be different and they're going to be hard.
They also will come to an end. And, and challenging yourself too to interrupting the thoughts of how things should be like, saying I should be happy, I should be spending time. This family member or this person, you. That's not true. And we really wanna challenge you to interrupt those thoughts and allow yourself to do what you need to do.
That feels good. Mm-hmm. And offering yourself some compassionate and kindness throughout this because you're not gonna get anywhere if you're not being self-compassionate and kind. to yourself and, just your normal day to day, like taking your medications, continuing to go to therapy regularly or seeing if you can get an extra session, if that helpful.
Staying active, exercising, and trying to stick to a regular meal plan. You talked about gut health earlier and . So trying to stick to, what works for you and what's going to keep you feeling healthy
Jess: . And, you know, I just wanna throw it out there too about the resources. Insight has, we have, trauma informed yoga services, which is just, you know, yoga from highly skilled professionals who understand. Things like grief, things like our body being dysregulated, things like anxiety and depression and other mental health conditions and how yoga and other, you know, movement services can help us process during this time.
So, you know, Insight has a lot of great classes, some amazing teachers, and new is Aeriel Yoga. What do you think about aerial yoga during the holidays? Kelsey, what's been your experience with
Kelsey: it? Yeah, aerial yoga's been fabulous.
I've never really felt super connected to yoga in the past. And Ariel Yoga. , and some of the other yoga classes too. A lot of them that we offer are amazing. They all are. But specifically aerial yoga, like if you really want a way to reset how you're feeling and thinking, I would definitely check it out.
And like you said, just the teachers are amazing and they're super trauma inform. I would highly recommend trying something like that if you can. .
Jess: And during this season let's not forget about ourselves, right? So maybe if this is a harder season for anyone listening due to grief and loss,
Jess: you just take care of yourself in the way of doing something like, Taken a few classes and bringing some play cuz it's a, it really yoga's so interesting.
And I know now we're going off on a tangent, but I just think it's it regulates the nervous system in a way that I've never experienced. And it also brings, this sense of play that if we're in a place of sorrow, Or there's a lack of light in our life, try going somewhere for 50 minutes where you feel safe and where you can reset, but also that you can play a lot.
I go to those classes and they're beautiful, and yet I also find myself smiling a whole
Kelsey: bunch. Yeah. And. And also just to add to that too, I know we've focused a lot on the more intense and negative emotions, but it's also okay, like maybe you have experienced a lot of loss recently and whatever that looks like to you, a loss of a loved one, a pet friend, or, job.
Or part of your identity? Any, anything we've talked about so far. It's also okay to feel happy too, and it's okay. Yeah. I just wanna take a minute too, to recognize that because feeling happy and feeling that's great. And we also want that. And we also, we just want the emotions, the natural emotions that.
going to have, We just want those to come through and, sit with them and honor them and yeah. ,
Jess: thank you for saying that. allowing yourself to have those authentic experiences, whatever they are. Cuz like you said earlier, it will ebb and flow. There'll be highs, there'll be lows. And we need those glimmers, we need those highs to help us through the harder parts. So thank you.
Kelsey: Yeah, thanks Jess. I really appreciate having this opportunity to talk about grief and how we can cope around the holidays, and I genuinely hope that each person finds what feels good for them as we approach the holiday season.
And again, just a reminder that any and all feelings are valid. But I do wanna say, if you find that you're having, ongoing intense and persistent negative feelings please reach out to a friend, family member, mental health professional. You can also call or text nine eight eight, which is the suicide and crisis hotline number.
And there's resources out there. So, I hope everyone has a safe and healthy holiday season. Thank
Jess: you. Thank you, Kelsey.
Thank you again for joining us on Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-centered mental health podcast. We hope today's episode was empowering and supported you in strengthening your mind-body connection We're your hosts Jeanne and Jess. Please join us again as we continue to explore integrative approaches to wellbeing. Until then, take care.