Grief During The Holidays
As temperatures plummet and snow starts to fall, we enter a time of year when many cultures celebrate and rejoice with winter holidays. We begin to decorate our homes, shop for presents for those we love, and see happy smiling images of families of all kinds all around us - on our phones, on TV, on ads we pass by at the mall. We are told that the holiday season is a time to spend with those we cherish most, to share love and appreciation over warm cups of hot cocoa. However, for many of us, this time of year can be a time of renewed grief and reminders of what we have lost in the past year.
Grief does not take a pause for the holiday season. Especially if this is the first holiday since a loved one has died or another great loss has occurred in your life, feelings of pain and sadness may resurge. While there can be a societal pressure to be joyous this time of year, it is normal to experience more grief around the holidays and it is healthy to tend to that grief as opposed to pushing it away until January. Just like any other time of the year, it’s important to be in touch with our feelings and coping strategies. Today we’re going to be discussing some specific strategies you can take this holiday season to healthily manage grief.
Show yourself compassion
When feelings of grief strike in “joyful” moments, we often will be quick to blame ourselves for being unable to “enjoy” these moments. It is normal to experience grief, even during happy times. This is not a sign that you are not healing or coping; it is critical to keep in mind that healing is not a linear process. No matter how far away the loss seems from the present moment, grief is a wave that ebbs and flows. During this time, it is important to allow your mind to accept that more than one thing can be true at once: you can be sad over your loss and still be healing from it.
Along with practicing acceptance towards your feelings, also check-in with your personal needs. You are not obligated to participate in any traditions that might cause you too much pain right now. Even if that means spending time on your own during a holiday, that is okay. Look inward and ask yourself if it feels better to participate in each tradition or to take a break from it this year. Also, be sure to check-in on physical needs as well. In times of stress, it can be easy to lose track of our health, hygiene, and routines.
A helpful acronym to remember some of your physical needs is “PLEASE”.
Tend to Physical ILlness
Eat regular, balanced meals
Avoid drugs, alcohol, and other mood altering substances
Maintain healthy Sleep habits
Give yourself time to feel & cope
As discussed above, we want to be able to react and create space for ourselves when needed. In times of grief, it’s also important to be proactive about creating space for ourselves. Plan times when you can sit with emotions ahead of time when possible. This can be alone or with other loved ones. Maybe it’s making time to reflect on past holidays, sharing stories about the person you’ve lost that may relate to the holiday, or maybe it’s being mindful of your grief as you partake in a tradition that you associate with that person.
You may also decide to “cope ahead of time”, meaning creating plans for how to cope in moments of heightened feelings. Reflect on what helps during the rest of the year: What helps me when I feel grief outside of the holidays? What are my coping skills in general, and how might I be able to access them while I’m with others? Especially if you are spending a holiday in a different place (i.e. another family member’s home, being out of state, etc.), you might have to plan ahead to find ways to connect with your regular coping skills, such as being sure to pack a journal with you or looking ahead of time for places where you may be able to spend time alone.
Embrace old & new traditions
While it can be painful in some cases to sit with old traditions, certain rituals from holidays past can make us feel closer to those we’ve lost. Consider what traditions are important to keep doing for your family even after your loss. This may also require planning ahead with others regarding who fills in the “roles” of those who have passed; for example, maybe an old tradition was that grandpa led a prayer before the big dinner. Decide together on who would be best to take on that role if it's a tradition that feels important to continue.
Consider also the ways that new traditions can be made. This is a chance to not only continue old rituals but also find new expressions and meanings in our festivities. A new dish, a new holiday movie, a new game, all things we can bring to the table to bring a new light. Do not view or use new traditions to “replace” old ones or avoid reminders, but rather use them as additions to what already exists.
Get support from others
Now more than ever it can be important to connect with those in our lives for support. Don’t let the impression that everyone is merry this time of year discourage you from reaching out to friends, family, and partners when needed. This time of year may also be an important time to utilize other resources outside of yourself, such as support groups, local grief resources, and individual therapists. Your individual therapist can be a wonderful resource for general support as well as helping you with any of the aforementioned strategies. Regardless of where support is coming from, know that you are deserving of assistance all year round.
Some specific resources that could be helpful this time of year include:
Loss and death are events that leave lasting impacts on us, and those impacts don’t disappear during holidays. It’s important to care for ourselves and take active steps to cope with grief during this season. Above all else, remember that intensified grief around the holidays does not mean you are not healing with your loss. Resurgence of grief around celebrations is a normal response - it shows the meaning that these traditions and memories have to you. The holidays may not always be merry, but we can still make them meaningful.