It’s never easy to deal with a loss, but the holiday season has a tendency to bring up painful reminders of deceased loved ones. And this year, many Americans may be dealing with grief over the holidays for the first time, as we mourn family and friends who lost their lives to COVID-19.
It’s not just death that can cause grief over the holidays. In fact, it’s likely most people are coping with a variety of losses this year, from the loss of a job to a loss of a relationship as a result of being geographically distant or feeling isolated from people they love.
Starting around Thanksgiving, many people who have lost loved ones experience sorrow as they’re reminded of memories from those who are no longer near. Holiday traditions meant to bring joy, like trimming the Christmas tree or listening to holiday music, can trigger feelings of intense grief as we remember holidays past and wonder how to celebrate the festive season without the people we love.
Grief is complicated and looks different for everyone. Sometimes, it’s surprising. Whether your loss is fresh or you’ve lost someone decades ago, unexpected feelings of sadness and loss can surface that aren’t necessarily attached to a specific memory. For some, these moments of grief can appear out of nowhere. For others, grief over the holidays is expected and dreaded. This year, the public health crisis that has affected all of us in different ways may result in added grief on top of an already emotionally loaded time of year.
There’s no right way to grieve, but there are things you can do to try to cope over the holidays while acknowledging and expressing your sadness.
How to deal with grief over the holidays:
1. Accept the emotions that you’re feeling. The holidays can generate exaggerated feelings as the pressure to be merry collides with the reality. Grief can present itself in a variety of emotions, from sadness or anxiety to irritability or anger. Everyone grieves differently. But that can be difficult when you’re around family members who expect you to show sadness in the same way—or even hide it. But, you’re human and allowed to feel a wide range of emotions, including both grief and joy. Sometimes you may even feel happy and sad within a few minutes. It’s healthy to acknowledge your emotions and accept how you’re feeling rather than try to escape it.
2. Show yourself kindness. It may sound simple, but self-care is one of the best ways to deal with grief over the holidays. Think about how you would care for others in your life experiencing loss, then apply the same measures of compassion and grace to yourself. When grief hits hard, try to find things to do that help you feel supported and restored, whether that means getting outside for some exercise, meditating or journaling.
3. Find ways to incorporate memories of your loved ones into holiday traditions. One way to deal with grief over the holidays is to memorialize the legacy of someone you’ve lost and keep their memory alive. Whether you incorporate them into existing traditions or establish new celebrations, it can be therapeutic to remember the lives of those who’ve died. Here are a few ways you can honor the life of loved ones over the holidays:
- Set a place for them at the table
- Tell stories about them related to the holidays
- Create an altar with favorite pictures and mementos
- Write them a letter or email
- Prepare a lost loved one’s favorite holiday dish
- Light a candle in their memory
4. Talk to someone. Experts know grief needs to be heard and witnessed. Try to find someone who you know is a good listener and admit to them when you’re having a hard time. Healing can begin when we’re able to speak our grief into existence. And, when you’re in the listener’s role, remember it’s not up to you to fix it. There’s no fixing grief. Instead, listen without judgment and remember that anything they’re feeling is OK.
This is especially true for parents of kids who may also be grieving. Kids need permission to feel all kinds of emotions, even if their grief manifests differently than yours. If you can help them normalize their feelings, whether that’s joy amidst sorrow or guilt coupled with happiness, you can help them to work through the grieving process in a healthy way.
5. Seek additional help. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, or you’re experiencing overwhelming grief for weeks or months, it may be helpful to seek counseling services from a therapist or psychologist. It’s healthy to ask for support, even if it’s outside of your inner circle. A professional counselor can serve as an active listener who can help you find healthy ways to cope with your grief, especially over the holidays.
Whether your grief is new this holiday season, or you struggle with sadness this time every year, know you’re not alone. And those feelings won’t last forever. While the holidays may never feel the same, time and support can help you make it through to the New Year a little bit easier.