4 Ways to Cope with Grief During the Holidays

The holiday season can be emotional when you’re grieving. Try these tips for being kind to yourself and finding moments of joy amidst the sorrow.

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Posted in , Nov 13, 2019

Loss at Thanksgiving

Holidays are about food, decorations, stories, traditions—and perhaps most of all, memories. As we grow older, we come back to the holidays of our childhood, our earlier adulthood, different moments in our still-unfolding lives. We might have changed since those days, or we might be keeping our traditions alive as comforting touchstones in the year.

After a life-changing loss, the holidays feel different. In grief, everything can strike an emotional chord, reminding us of happier times of togetherness and triggering fresh feelings of sadness over all that’s been lost.

As surreal as this can feel to someone who is in deep grief, the holiday season does not pause. So how do we meet this time of year with as much grace and authentic positivity as possible? 

1) Give Yourself Permission to Skip It (or Parts of It)
My father died in September, and he would have turned 75 two days after Thanksgiving. When my family was talking about making a plan for navigating this complex moment, we agreed that there was one thing we all wanted to skip this year—setting the table for a dinner that we would sit down to without him.

Instead, we made a reservation for a casual dinner at a restaurant, one that we’ve never been to together as an extended family. The newness of this experience won’t keep Dad far from our thoughts—no matter where we sit and eat, he’ll be on our minds. But it will dial back the heaviness we were all feeling at the idea of our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It’s ok to step back from parts of the holidays that are simply too much for where you are in your grieving process.

2) Drop the Act
Some people might feel pressured to “act happy” during the holiday season, taking a break from grieving and getting in the spirit. If “acting as if” is a good feeling for you, don’t hesitate to meet yourself where you are. But for many of us, the effort it takes to meet others’ expectations for the holiday season is overwhelming and even dishonest to our true feelings.

Let yourself be authentic during a challenging holiday season. Do more listening than talking if you don’t have the energy to participate in cheerful conversations. Take breaks from boisterous celebrations. Let yourself be seen, with the full range of your valid feelings.

3) Tell Their Stories—and Yours
Storytelling is part of healing. As you mourn and remember your loved one, think back on memories and stories that feel comforting to tell at holiday time. These might be the time the turkey slid hilariously right off the holiday table, and Mom’s tears turned to laughter. Or the time your brother surprised you with a holiday visit. Or the time you were far from home and yearned for your family’s candied yams.

Telling your loved ones’ stories—and your own—can go a long way toward bringing the holidays back into three dimensions after a season of loss. If it is too emotional to tell stories to others, try writing them in a journal, to enjoy a private moment with your own thoughts and memories.

4) Honor Their Memory
The holiday season is a time of myriad opportunities to be generous with your time and money, to offer to others something that you enjoy in your own life. In memory of your loved one, make a donation to a charity that was meaningful to them, sign up for a 5K walk or run that benefits the community, visit elderly residents at a nursing home or take some other action that will bring your loved one’s memory into your heart—and into someone else’s life.

If you are grieving, how do you plan to cope with the holiday season?

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