Coping with Grief During the Holidays
Nestling together with family, catching up with friends and loved ones, or eating a special meal together are some of the many ways we may enjoy the holiday season. Holidays are a time of joy, but if you have been touched by loss and are coping with grief, you may not feel like celebrating. After losing a loved one, you may not experience the same level of joy during the winter holidays. This can be especially true for the first couple of holiday seasons after experiencing the loss.
More Tears, Less Cheer
Loved ones may want to say or do things to cheer you up or make you feel better. However, you might find these well-meaning gestures unhelpful and even harmful. For example, talking about looking on the bright side or finding a silver lining could dissuade you from expressing your thoughts and feelings about the loss. In worst-case scenarios, you may find yourself masking your true emotions to fit the expectation of the friend. It’s OK to tell people what you need. For example, you could ask someone to just be there for you and listen or spend time with you during an upcoming holiday.
Some Tears Are Good During the Holiday
Tears can mean you have accepted and are processing the loss and experiencing the feelings that come along with it. These tears are healthy even though they represent pain. The very first Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or New Year’s without a mother, dad, spouse or child will likely include some tears. Good support can mean letting the tears fall, acknowledging pain, and hand-holding. I encourage my clients to feel how they need to feel. Even if friends and loved ones want to celebrate it’s OK to cry when you need to cry.
Maybe Not the Life of The Party
Take time for you. Friends and family may invite and encourage you to attend holiday gatherings and annual parties. Undoubtedly this desire may come from a good place; however, the reality could be you just don’t feel like going to the office party or big family Thanksgiving dinner. It is not uncommon to experience guilt or confusion when realizing you have little or no desire to attend a holiday gathering. Maybe attending for an hour could be enjoyable, but attending the entire evening is not. Everyone is different. As a grief counselor, I often tell my clients, “You are the expert on you.” Individuals can gauge their own feelings and needs more accurately than their friends and loved ones. You will know if something is working or if something is not.
I often try to empower clients to communicate their own needs to family and friends during the holiday while developing a strategy of support during the holiday season. Developing a plan to identify and accommodate your emotional needs can be helpful.
This could mean asking yourself, “What are my Do’s and Don’ts?
Develop a Plan
- Going to the office holiday party is OK because it’s right after work and I can pop in and out.
- Christmas morning will be hard. I’ll ask my good friend to spend time with me.
- I will engage in self-care like jogging, spa treatments, reading, meditations and listening to relaxing music.
- Consider a check-in with a counselor, clergy, friend or other supportive person.
- Going to the New Year’s party is too much. I don’t feel like celebrating without my spouse.
- I don’t want to go to the Christmas gathering. It will trigger anxiety, and I won’t have fun.
A New Way Forward
If Thanksgiving was a special holiday for you and the deceased, then the loss could likely change how you experience the holiday. It is not uncommon for people to want to limit, modify or change holiday routines and practices following the death of a loved one. If your Christmas tradition was to gather with your great aunt at her house but she passed away this summer, or if the family enjoyed a special meal with Bubbe during Chanukah but she passed last spring, then new traditions may chart a path forward. Traditions last for years and all families have some form of them. Feelings of anxiety, guilt, frustration, and even confusion are not uncommon when developing new ones. I hope you remember that the family tradition you may now be changing was once new when it started. I hope you can give yourself permission to embrace new ones that give comfort to you during the holidays. Make room for the space in your heart that will welcome back joy…when the time is right.
Gilchrist provides grief counseling services, support groups, and bereavement events to anyone in the community who has experienced a loss. To learn more, visit gilchristcares.org/grief-counseling.
To support our work, visit gilchristcares.org/give.