Dealing with grief during the holidays

Grieving woman sitting on the the sofa at home during christmas

It’s hard to lose someone you love. Navigating the holidays after a loss is even harder. Your feelings of grief may become heightened at times when everyone gathers their families and friends together.

“Grief, like other strong emotions, can be hard to navigate while we’re experiencing it,” says Benjamin Breeding, a behavioral health case manager with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “It is common for holidays to be accompanied by increased feelings of grief. Making preparations in advance for that grief can be very helpful.”

Planning for grieving during the holidays

Benjamin Breeding: Grief affects your health in many ways. Acute grief is actually a healthy part of the healing process, but prolonged grief can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health. Even if you’re not affected by prolonged grief, feelings of grief can still resurface from time to time. The holidays are a prime time for that to happen. Here are some steps to help you prepare for the holiday season:

  1. Acknowledge that your grief exists and that it’s valid. Telling these things to yourself or someone you trust reinforces these truths. Too often, we try to ignore our needs or tell ourselves that we should “be strong.”
  2. Identify the things you are comfortable doing and things you’re not comfortable doing. It’s okay to decline an event or activity. Focus on the most significant things to you.
  3. Make a list of trusted loved ones. Identifying supportive people who can be comforting to you will be helpful. Communicate your plan for coping with your grief so they can help you manage. This can also help you set and maintain boundaries.

Strategies for coping with grief during the holidays

Benjamin Breeding: Here are some ways to help you cope with your grief during the busy holiday season:

Give yourself permission to change your mind. If you need to change your mind about participating in a particular holiday activity, don’t feel bad. Give yourself compassion.

Don’t be afraid to cry. Crying is okay! Feelings of grief ebb and flow. It’s okay to take a break and let yourself feel and express those waves.

Avoid illicit drugs and alcohol. As tempting as it may be to try to escape your feelings, using these substances can be dangerous. Plus, they can make you feel worse later.

Share favorite memories. Sharing memories of your loved one may help you stay connected—both to their memory and to other people who loved them.

Honor traditions. If celebrating a particular holiday tradition is important to you, then do it. It may bring some tears, but it may also bring some healing.

Be open to changing traditions. If certain holiday traditions feel closely tied to your loss, you might be able to make some small changes to them. You could even start a new tradition.

Ask for help. Ask friends or family to help you shop for gifts, decorate, or prepare food.

Give yourself an out. If you can, drive yourself to holiday gatherings or events. Even with careful planning, you may begin to feel like it’s too much and want to leave.

Help others. Volunteering during the holidays can be a meaningful way of honoring your loved one’s memory. It can also make you feel better.

Take care of your other needs. Try to eat healthy foods and get plenty of sleep. 

Attend a support group. Sometimes it helps to talk to others who know how it feels to lose a loved one. You can also turn to online support groups if that’s your preference.

Talk to a therapist

Benjamin Breeding: If you need additional support during the holidays, reach out to a therapist.

If you don’t currently have a therapist, it may be worth finding one. Therapists are skilled at helping people accept and understanding their grief, as well as helping them navigate their feelings in challenging times—like the holidays. The value of having a trusted professional to talk to simply can’t be overstated.

More from Benjamin Breeding on WellTuned

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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