Tips for Coping with Grief During the Holiday Season

The holiday season is meant to be a time filled with collective joy, happiness and goodwill, yet for the bereaved it may feel like anything but! For those struggling with the loss of a loved one, the arrival of the holidays can feel more like a pretty gift box filled with grief triggers then a time of celebration. The holiday season is a sad reminder that a loved one is no longer here and the traditions that once served to nourish us may set us into a spiral of painful feelings. It is natural and expected for the holiday season to trigger a wide range of emotions for those who have lost a loved one Even in the absence of grief, our friends and relatives often think they know how our holidays should look, what “the family” should and shouldn’t do –  this dynamic can become even more amplified for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Below are some tips to help you navigate through the upcoming holiday season. Not all may resonate to you but pick ones that feel authentic to your healing process.

  1. Set realistic expectations for yourself. If this is the first year without your loved one, remind yourself that this year is and will be different. Do a personal inventory to determine if you can still handle the normal responsibilities and tasks of the holiday that you’ve assumed in the past. Take an honest look at the events of celebrating and ask yourself if you want and/or are able to continue with the same traditions this year. If it feels overwhelming then enlist the help of a friend or family member to help navigate through the holidays or give yourself permission to change things up this year in a way that feels more manageable to you.  Share your plans with family and friends and let them know of any intended changes in holiday routine and how they can best support you.
  2. Set healthy boundaries and take a measured approach to Holiday commitments. It is in the service of self-care to avoid circumstances and celebratory events that you don’t feel ready to handle. You certainly should not force yourself to engage in every holiday event or celebratory tradition.  If attending or engaging in certain events is likely to bring about too many painful memories then be willing to say no. Other people may try to convince you to participate, but you certainly don’t have to try to please everyone and you are entitled to put your needs first. Pick and choose, very carefully, which events you are comfortable attending but try not to isolate yourself too much as that can intensify feelings of depression and sadness. While it is critical to carve out some time for reflection, remembering and grieving, make efforts to balance it with some activities with others.
  3. Ask for help. Many times, people are hesitant to ask others for help. You should not hesitate to ask for help when you’re struggling and feeling emotionally overwhelmed with the holidays. Reminding loved ones that you’re having a difficult time may be enough, but you may also need to reach out for additional support as some people are uncomfortable with loss or simply do not know how to support others who are grieving – especially with disenfranchised losses such as the death of a pet. Look for in-person or online grief support groups or contact a professional counselor to help you cope more effectively with your grief during the holiday season.
  4. Take special care of yourself.  Avoid using alcohol or other unhealthy means to self-medicate your mood as this short-term “solution” will only serve to make matters worse in the end. Instead engage in self-soothing activities such as; physical exercise to help combat depression, writing in a journal to provide a good outlet for your grief, practice mindfulness, yoga and stress reduction techniques to help reduce your stress reaction. Consider treating yourself to something that feels nurturing to yourself such as a mini getaway, spa day, massage, etc.
  5. Create a new tradition or ritual that is reflective of your current situation. Some people find comfort in old traditions as it helps them feel closer to their loved one, while others find those traditions too painful to carry out. Don’t hesitate to create new traditions this year – give yourself permission to be creative and do something out of the ordinary. You can also modify old traditions and make them fit better with this new era of your life. For example, you may ask family members to donate to a charity or cause relevant to your loved one in lieu of gifts, you can volunteer at a shelter or choose a specific day during the holidays in celebration and dedication to your loved one.
  6. Focus on what you can control and let go of what you cannot. There are many things about the holiday season that you cannot control such as; Christmas music, decorations, holiday parties etc. While you can’t prevent those things from happening, think about and focus on some things that you can control that will help make things more manageable. It’s perfectly acceptable to limit your decorations or shop for presents online if going into the stores triggers intense grief and sadness. Identify a few things you can do to assert some control over the holiday atmosphere and design a holiday plan that is best suited for your emotional needs.
  7. Plan ahead, set limits and have a have plan A /plan B options. Oftentimes, the anticipation over how difficult something is going to be is much worse than the actual event itself. Are you reacting the anticipation or to the event?  While a Holiday gathering may only last a few hours, you could easily spend the weeks leading up to the event worrying about it. It can be helpful to establish a “break away” plan. For example, drive yourself to holiday functions or ride with a friend who will take you home whenever you feel that you have had enough. Just knowing you can choose to leave at any time may help ease your worries and allow you to enjoy the activity much more than you would if you felt stuck. Plan A is you go to the holiday gathering or dinner with family and friends. If you do not feel right, have your plan B ready. Plan B may be looking through a photo album, going to a movie, going to a special place you would spend time together or just go home and spend time with a friend.  Many people find that when they have an option of Plan B, sometimes that is enough of a safety net to help them cope.
  8. If all else fails cancel the holiday all together and find a different way to engage with the season. Yes, you can indeed choose to cancel the holiday. If you push yourself to go through the motions but are feeling too overwhelmed by constant sadness or other painful emotions then you can cancel the holidays. Give your self permission to take a year off from the holidays and tend to your needs in a way that is self-nurturing. Think of creative ways to “be” and engage during the holiday season that may not include gatherings and celebrations. Assess what elements of the holiday season you take pleasure in and what parts you don’t. Just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way to handle the holidays while grieving and only you can decide what is right for you. You have every right to change your mind about how and if you will celebrate the holidays in a way that is not informed by guilt or expectations of those around you. Do what is right for you and be honest with your own needs!
  9. Find ways to honor the memories of your loved one and externalize the loss. Create a special way to memorialize your loved one during the holiday season. Finding ways to honoring your loved one can serve as a tangible reminder that although your loved one is no longer physically with you, your love for them continues on. Some ideas to consider are; 
  • Create a memory box and fill it with special photos of your loved one, letters, a eulogy or precious keepsakes and mementos.
  • Make a decorative/holiday quilt or have one made using items that remind your loved one.
  • Place a bouquet of flowers or plant on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
  • Have a moment of silence during a holiday toast to honor your loved one
  • Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas/Chanukah/Holiday tree.
  • If putting up a Holiday tree is too painful consider calling it a “Memory” tree.
  • Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one.
  • Write a poem or share a favorite or funny story about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.
  • Have a moment of silence or prayer before the holiday dinner in memory of your loved one.
  • Light a candle each night in honor of your loved one.
  • Create an online tribute for them.
  • Volunteer at a place that hold personal significance and is symbolic of your relationship with your loved one.

In summary be gentle with yourself, don’t do more than you want or can, and don’t do anything that does not serve your healing process and feelings. Be sure to allow time to feel and express your feelings; don’t keep feelings bottled up. If you have 1,000 tears to cry don’t stop at 500. Be open to allowing others to help as we all need help at certain times in our lives. The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one, and that the best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, get support from others and take it easy.

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