I think about grief a lot these days, especially when it comes grief during the holidays. I lost my dad recently, and I remember how painful that first year was in trying to adjust to a new normal. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how I would manage being “festive and bright.” I didn’t know how to feel, how to be around others, or how I would ever be able to celebrate again.
In many ways, I’m still learning how to be with the holidays while navigating some pretty heavy grief. The grief process can be complex and tenuous at every stage. But many people find that the holiday season exacerbates intense emotions of sadness, loneliness, anger, and even guilt. I can relate to all of this so much!
What worked for me was a lot of self-compassion and finding ways (which were challenging) to connect with my dad by creating different traditions with him. I made his favorite meal and desserts, lit a candle in his honor, and I made time to sit quietly and connect to my emotional experience. I practiced radical self-compassion and didn’t put pressure on myself to pretend or be anything other than who I was at any given moment.
Grief is a universal experience with many unique undertones specific to your lived experience. While there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, you may need to make some adjustments as you move through your normal holiday traditions this year. No matter your specific circumstances, here are some gentle reminders to keep in mind over the next few weeks.
Allow Yourself to Honor Your Emotions Amid Grief During the Holidays
Grief does not follow a predetermined timeline, and no two people grieve in the exact same way. Although everyone around you may be seemingly getting into the holiday spirit, it’s important that you let yourself feel your own feelings and engage in various rituals and events at your own pace.
Sitting with grief can be uncomfortable, but suppressing them comes with steep costs. If possible, try to accept your emotions for what they are. Remember that feelings can coexist together, and it’s normal for people to experience various emotions around the same time. You can also experience the dialectic of really grieving someone you loved and enjoying parts of the holidays.
Consider Which Holiday Celebrations You Want to Embrace
Holiday grief can be particularly tender because it often coincides with specific rituals and traditions that may have spanned several decades. For example, your grandfather may have always dressed up as Santa to make the younger children laugh. Or your aunt may have had a way of hosting dinner and specifically decorating her holiday table.
Traditions can also be more covert. You may, for instance, enjoy carefully selecting gifts for each family member every year. The grief associated with not buying a present for your missing loved one can be difficult.
These fond memories can certainly evoke bittersweet emotions, especially if you’re grieving a close family member or friend. This year, you may decide that you want to mix new traditions while honoring older ones. You might consider collaborating with family ahead of time to determine how you want to manage certain traditions.
Try to maintain realistic expectations for yourself during this time. Overextending yourself with too many social invitations can lead to fatigue, resentment, and feeling burnt out.
With that, turning down every invitation may exacerbate loneliness and sadness. The key is to try to spend time meeting your needs and celebrate the holidays in a way that feels most meaningful to you.
Decide Which Boundaries You Want to Make
You can and should preserve your own emotional well-being during the holiday season. Self-compassion is an important piece of grief, and practicing self-compassion means treating yourself with love and kindness amid difficult circumstances.
Try to plan ahead to think about which limits you want to set with others. Even if you feel pressure to spend time with other family members or attend various holiday gatherings, consider checking in with your own emotions first.
If you do commit to a specific social event, remember that you’re not obligated to stay the entire time. Simply having an exit strategy in place can be paramount to honoring your mental health.
Try a Grief Support Group
The winter holidays emphasize connection and cheer, which can, paradoxically, cause people to feel even more isolated and sad. These emotions may be heightened during the grieving process, and they can, at times, feel overwhelming.
Grief support groups offer a sense of camaraderie and meaning during this time. You’ll be surrounded by other like-minded individuals who are moving through their own grief journeys, and they can provide you with a sense of connection and validation.
Grief support groups may be peer-led, although some therapists and grief counselors facilitate them as well. There are both in-person and virtual options available throughout the U.S.
Maintain Your Normal Routine As Much As Possible
It’s no secret that the holidays can be a busy and stressful time of year. You may be spending more money than usual, traveling to see family or friends, and taking time off work. While all the events can be exciting, it’s also easy to unintentionally neglect self-care during this time.
Staying grounded in a routine allows you to take things one step at a time. This can also be valuable in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death. You merely focus on doing the next thing.
Recovering from grief isn’t just about moving forward. It’s about taking care of yourself during every stage. A routine can simplify that process for you, and honoring that predictability can truly become its form of self-care.
Identify Emergency Coping Skills
It’s so important to remember that there is absolutely nothing pathological about grieving. Everyone struggles with loss in this lifetime- it is simply a part of the collective human experience.
However, some people find that navigating grief during the holidays magnifies certain stressors, especially if they have a history of depression, complex trauma, anxiety, disordered eating, self-harm, or substance use. Because grief can trigger such immense pain, you may find yourself wanting to numb your feelings or isolate yourself from loved ones.
While these strategies may provide some immediate relief, they can complicate grief and actually make it harder to heal. If you’re not in therapy, now may be the time to seek professional support if you’re struggling with grief. It’s also important to identify various ways you can cope with stress.
Therapy for Trauma, Transitional Support, and Grief During the Holidays in Washington State
I know the holidays can be challenging and triggering for many people, and it’s okay if this is a difficult time as you learn to carry your grief. Healing from loss is undoubtedly complex, and it’s never a complete process.
I specialize in helping adults navigate difficult life transitions, including grief and all its related stressors. I work with people who want to improve their self-esteem, strengthen their emotional resilience, and live more authentically. No matter where you are in your grief journey, I welcome you to contact me today to schedule an initial complimentary consultation.