Handling the Holidays When You’re Grieving

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Holidays can be a minefield to navigate when you are grieving the loss of a loved one, especially if that loss was recent and this is your first holiday without them.

There you are, feeling so very sad and vulnerable and raw, and everywhere you turn you are listening to cheerful holiday music, looking at pictures of smiling people, and watching excited children and beaming parents going about their holiday preparations. The contrast between where you are and where the rest of the world seems to be can be overwhelming and quite painful.

Holidays are a time when cultural tradition exerts tremendous pressure on you to be a certain way, feel a certain way, act a certain way – ways that feel almost foreign to you in the midst of your grief. As you look around your holiday table, the absence of those who aren’t there is keenly felt. You remember past holidays when no one was missing, and you contemplate future holidays when someone is forever missing.

3 Things to Remember

1. Getting through the holidays when you are grieving is going to be hard, especially if it’s the first holiday without your loved one. Know it. Accept it. Prepare for it.

2. It’s okay for it to be hard. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to feel really, really bad. And just because you do, that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing okay. Maybe you thought you were getting over the hump, and now it feels like you’ve gone backward. That’s normal because the grieving process isn’t linear. It doesn’t follow a formula. Grieving is more cyclical, and the rawness can resurface in waves. Your grieving process is fine. It’s exactly what it needs to be.

3. Feel what you’re feeling. Lean into it. It may not seem like it right now, but your feelings will not kill you. You will come out the other side eventually. Take stock of your feelings, talk about them, don’t avoid them, and don’t stuff them. You will get through this.

5 Survival Tactics

1. Include your missing loved one in your holiday celebrations. Don’t avoid saying their name or mentioning them. Reminisce about what Mom would be doing right now if she were here, what she loved most about the holidays. If Dad always took pleasure in trimming the tree, then talk about him while you trim the tree. Use this time to feel close to your loved one and their spirit. Openly celebrate them.

2. Start new traditions. Create a ritual to honor the loved one you have lost.

3. Lean on your support system. Commiserate with others going through the same thing – perhaps in the form of a bereavement support group or perhaps just being sure that this is the year the whole family gets together to love and support each other. Spend time with people with whom you can be your authentic, grieving self – people who don’t expect you to plaster a smile on your face and pretend to be happy.

4. Be kind to yourself. If going out into the world and seeing all those happy holiday faces is the last thing you need, then minimize your exposure. Avoid the mall and do your gift shopping online. On the other hand, if going out and feeling the joy of the holiday is helpful to you, then by all means go out and relish it.

5. Have reasonable, realistic expectations of yourself.  This may not be the year for you to host the neighborhood Secret Santa party or volunteer your usual amount of time at the local shelter. Or maybe it is exactly the year for you to do those things. You know what you do and don’t need. Heed your inner wisdom and put yourself first.

A Final Note

Remember that you aren’t always going to feel this way.  The holidays this year may be more difficult than joyous, but eventually you will make peace with the grief you are feeling about your loss.  Time and healing will allow you to once again feel joy rather than pain at the memory of your loved one.

Also remember that grief shouldn’t be something you do alone. Be sure to connect with family and friends or perhaps a counselor or support group if that would be helpful. Make sure you don’t become isolated and cut off from your supports because now is when you need them the most.

Expect that your grief is going to hurt, excruciatingly so sometimes. However, if you or your loved ones notice you’re experiencing a level of depression or anxiety in response to your grief that is negatively impacting your life and making it hard to function normally, don’t just wait and ride it out, hoping it will go away. Connect with a counselor and get some extra support because being able to process your grief will help you move through the process in a healthier way.

Kate Roberge, LCSW, joined New Approaches a little over a year ago after 10 years as a hospice social worker. Her work focuses on helping clients manage and navigate change in their lives by realizing the power they have to make their own choices while letting go of what they can’t control. Her clients are often going through major life transitions like divorce or becoming a parent for the first time, grieving the loss of a loved one, or adjusting to chronic medical conditions.


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