Christmas wreath hanging on a blue door.

Grief and the Holidays

The end-of-the year holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, and New Years, can be complicated to face when you are grieving. It is very normal to experience an increase in your grief during this time as we reflect back on memories, traditions, and connections while your loved one was alive. You may be even more aware of the absence of the person you lost while also trying to navigate through this very difficult time in our world…COVID, racial inequality, and political upheaval have added insult to injury, so to speak. At times, I wonder, have you felt like you are almost back to square one? Well, if you are struggling with more intense grief, please know that it surely is painful, maybe bittersweet, but it makes sense.

My brother, Damien, died on Christmas day. Three weeks later my grandfather died. Two weeks after that my sister adopted out my newborn nephew. A month later, my parents moved from when I lived to the midwest. It was an impossible time for me. Christmas was changed forever. And has stayed changed. Traditions, rituals, and even relationships have morphed into something new. But it took time to adjust to that. Sometimes the holidays seem so overwhelming, but other years it is more manageable. But my awareness of the increase of my grief is clear.

It doesn’t always help when we watch movies, are invited to gatherings, or preparing our homes that we have these messages of how the holidays “should” be. How often do we see a commercial of families gathering around the dinner table laughing and sharing? Now how often do those commercials reflect the pain of a person who may be missing from that table? It can make us feel like we are doing something wrong or even making others feel bad by sharing our grief. I’ve heard some people say, “I don’t want everyone else around me feel bad or ruin their holidays. So I don’t say anything and I just kind of push it away as best I can.” It’s complicated…and often results in many conflicting emotions that can feel overpowering.

Well, we have to get through this, right? How? What are some ways to cope with your grief as the holidays approach?

  1. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings without judgment

The experiences and expectations around these holidays can really trigger some intense emotions and painful memories, which may or may not be shared by others who also are grieving. That’s OK. We all grieve in our unique ways. Some of us are more likely to talk with a person who can hear our pain without trying to “fix it,” while others need time alone to process quietly. Sometimes we even need a combination of both. Follow your instincts and allow your feelings to be as they are. Pushing them down only makes them more intense…kind of like the pressure of a volcano when it cannot let out any of its built up pressure. An explosion, or implosion in this case, can result.

  1. Take time for yourself and maintain a routine

Finding ways to have boundaries around self-care can make overwhelming thoughts and feelings feel more manageable. If you are taking care of your mind, body, and spirit, in whichever way is comfortable for you, you will have more bandwidth to navigate your grief in healthier ways. Questions to ask yourself are how much time do you want to spend with people? How much social media should you look at? What kind of activities feel too much to handle? And if you change your mind at the last minute, how will you communicate that clearly?

Also, maintaining a routine provides some structure. When you have structure, there can be a sense of feeling grounded. So in a way, that feeling of having an anchor in your daily life with consistent sleep, healthy food, exercise, spending time with your hobbies, meditating, etc., creates a “container.” You find ways to feel like you have space for your grief while also still feeling like you are keeping your life on a healthy track.

  1. Be patient with yourself and with your process

In a previous blog, I talked about how grief is not a linear process. We do not go from one stage or another (such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Grief is messy. There are way more emotions than just this simple prescription we are told to believe. Grief circles around and takes turns that are unexpected. It surges and dips down…but all the while we are striving to accept the reality of our loss, find ways to adjust our life to accommodate for all the changes, and remain connected to our lost loved one while also giving ourselves permission to move forward.

This takes time. You cannot force it to go any faster just like you cannot force a flower to bloom before its time. Allowing your grieving process to unfold naturally is the way through. It is going to hurt, and we naturally want to shy away from pain. But grief is the price we pay for love, and I do not think you’d give up all the love you shared just to avoid the grief you have now. Maybe at times it feels that way, and that’s OK as well. But in the end, when your grief is not as intense, you may feel differently about that.

  1. Plan for the holidays

Your holidays may need to look different now. Life the way you knew it is no longer, and as a result, figuring out how to adjust to those changes will be part of getting through them. What changes will you need to make? How can you honor your relationship and loved one’s memory while still engaging with the days ahead.

Christmas was HARD after Damien died. Really hard! My grief surges when I approach Christmas…it sometimes even takes me over. I realize there was no way I could work for a few days before Christmas. As a grief specialist, my ability to be there for my clients as they moved through the holidays was reduced. I had to learn to take care of myself and put a boundary around that time even though in my heart I wanted to be there for them too. But that’s just a fact for me now. I’ve learned to be OK with that because I cannot very well encourage others to have boundaries if I cannot put them in place for myself.

One way of managing these difficult times is to put together a ritual. It doesn’t need to be elaborate…or it can be. Whatever you’d like. Include others if you can. If you can do so earlier in the day, it helps to know you have allowed yourself to feel and share your thoughts and emotions and helps the rest of the day be manageable. Focus on reconnection with your loved one, and make sure that when you are done your ritual, you give yourself a few moments to reset and then transition into the rest of the day. It’s important that the ritual be meaningful by including objects or memories. For example, in my ritual for my brother, I always include brownies. Brownies were a favorite of ours in the family, and I have a lot of special memories around making them with my him. So now I make them every single year. I share them with my loved ones, light a candle next to his picture, and tell stories about memories I have of him.

  1. Don’t do it alone

Now, I know I said that sometimes being alone is important. But the research shows that even if you have just one person you can share your feelings with, your grief will likely be easier to manage. There is a saying I love: Joy shared is joy doubled, grief shared is grief halved. That speaks volumes. Reach out to others as you need them so you know you are not alone in your pain. those trusted people you can lean on and let yourself do so. Ask people for what you need.

I wish you the best as you are trying to learn how to do this “new normal.” And remember, if it is feeling like it’s too hard to manage, reach out to a grief specialist who can help you through