There is a long standing association between the holidays and good food, fun, celebration and joy with the ones we love most. Something we can all feel guilty of taking for granted when our holidays are over shadowed with the loss of a loved one. The holidays can be a painful reminder of the wonderful times we had with our loved ones that we will never get back, the traditions that might never feel fully fulfilled.
Following the loss of a loved one during the holiday season can feel full of heartbreak and triggers. As if grief isn’t hard enough, trying to navigate grief during a widely celebrated time is hard, here are some tips to cope with grief around the holidays.
1 – The Anticipation Can Be The Hardest Part
It is not only the holiday itself that is difficult for people who are in grief, but the anticipation of the holiday can be the hardest part.
The decorating, baking, shopping, picking a Christmas tree, all those traditions we do to get us into an excited mood for the holidays are now a source of grief. These activities are now the hardest, as they no longer include the one we loved and lost. A three day holiday turns into weeks of painful build up that very quickly rolls into another major holiday.
There can be a lot of emotional ups and downs to manage over the next couple of weeks. Going to group and/or individual therapy, to talking out the anticipation of the holidays, can be really helpful. Therapy lets you know that you are not alone by hearing the different ways that others, who are going through the same thing, are managing the challenging holiday.
2 – Grief. It Doesn’t Care That It’s The Holiday Season
All feelings are normal, especially around the holidays. Grief can come in waves. At any given moment we can find ourselves crying, feeling guilt, regret, disbelief, numb, angry, irritable, shocked, even laughing and having fun.
Whatever the feeling is, it is completely normal to experience a wide range of emotions. The holidays can heighten the feelings you typically have because there is a lot of sentimental meaning and constant reminders of your loss.
At times, we can judge ourselves for the feelings we are having around the holidays, we can be harsh on ourselves when we find that we can’t just ‘snap out of it’ and enjoy the holiday or find ourselves feeling guilt if we catch ourselves laughing and having a good time.
We can feel like we are ‘wrong’ for even enjoying our holiday when we have experienced a loss. Don’t judge yourself for your feelings because you will continue to have good days and bad days regardless of the holiday season and with the holiday session you can expect to feel more.
Which brings us to another point,
3 – Don’t Feel Pressured to be Happy for Others, Be Unhappy if You Need to
Happiness around the holidays doesn’t have to be a two way street. The words ‘merry’ Christmas and ‘happy’ holidays, or ‘happy’ New Year, may be triggering as you don’t feel happy. You don’t have to pretend it’s a happy or a merry Christmas for you or that you are excited to ring in the new year.
The people close to you will get it and those who might not be aware of your grief. Just say ‘thank you’, give a simple smile and if you feel compelled you can be honest and say the holidays aren’t a happy one this year.
How you feel inside likely doesn’t match what everyone else is feeling and that is okay. You don’t have to put on a show, it is okay to not be okay.
4 – Include Your Loved One in Your Holiday
Trying to continue with the holiday season pretending like nothing has happened is ‘ignoring the elephant in the room’, it’s nearly impossible to ignore it, and ignoring it only brings more attention to it.
A beautiful way to process grief during the holidays is to find a fun and meaningful way to include the person you have lost throughout the holiday. Here are just some meaningful ways to incorporate your loved one during the holiday season.
Making their favorite meal
Continuing their favorite tradition
Setting a seat at the table for them
Putting out a bowl of their favorite candy
Buy cookie cutters that make you think of your loved one, making a batch of cookies and decorate them and give them out as gifts
Make a new Christmas ornament that makes you think of them
Buy what you would have bought them and Donate it to a cause meaningful cause in their name
Put out a Christmas stocking and place fun memories in the stocking each day.
There are many ways you can include your loved one in the holiday season that shine the light on them in a positive way. This can be extended to other family members to make it a family event, which might even turn into a new tradition.
5 – Manage Plans
There are a lot more events and parties happening around this time of the year. It can, at times, take an emotional toll or be a welcomed distraction. If you feel like you need to, there is no shame in cancelling your plans, all of them, seriously. Do what makes you feel like you can get through the holiday season.
When you are in grief during the holidays, the focus should really be on doing what makes you feel good. Sometimes that means taking a time out or even cancelling the holidays all together. The reality is that the holiday comes back every year and it’s okay to sit this one out.
You might find that you don’t need to cancel plans, but instead want to use the outings as a welcome break and nice distraction. There is no need to cancel plans if you feel like the company you are in would be understanding that you aren’t your normal self or decided to leave early.
It’s important to feel like you don’t have to put on a face for everyone else’s sake, this can be emotionally taxing.
When it comes to keeping plans just make sure you have an exit plan in place. There is a chance you don’t need one but it might be comforting to know you have one. Make plans to drive separately, arrive mid-way or closer to the end, have a friend that you can have as a distraction and who can have your back when you need them. Have whatever it might be in place to manage your holiday outings.
6 – Watch What You Say to Yourself and Adjust Your Expectations
Don’t tell yourself ‘I have too’ during the holiday. Reduce the amount of pressure you have when in grief by being forgiving to yourself and take it easy. You don’t have to treat the holidays like nothing has changed. Something significant has changed and it can be a time to reassess what your needs or wants are around the holidays.
You don’t ‘have to’ put up a tree, you don’t ‘have to’ hold that annual Christmas party. Free yourself of some of the rituals that just don’t feel that fulfilling right now and resume them when your ready. Maybe instead, create a new ritual that is done in loving memory of who you have lost.
7 – Express Your Needs
Let people know it’s okay to talk about your loved one, or let them know you need more time and aren’t ready. Regardless of how you feel, be prepared that people wont know what your need is unless you express it.
If you find yourself wanting to talk about the person you lost, don’t take it personally if people don’t mention them at a holiday gathering.
The likenesses is that people are worried that if they bring up the person who has passed, that they are going to make you uncomfortable, make you feel sad or ruin your holiday. When in reality, you may feel the complete opposite, that you want to talk about your loved one and share the funny memories or feel that talking about them keeps their memory alive.
For some people they need more time to process and grieve on their own before they can feel comfortable talking and sharing memories. Gently let people know that you appreciate their desire to talk about your loved one, and that you aren’t in a place where you feel ready to talk about it openly just yet.
8 – Be Prepared for Unsolicited Advice
You might find yourself around more people than you typically do during the holiday season. The people around you who can relate to grief and loss, especially around the holidays, may feel like they have experiences, helpful advice and insight to share with you.
Some people don’t realize that you might be too overwhelmed to take in their advice or are not in a place where you are ready to hear other peoples experiences. There is nothing wrong with faking a smile and nodding, politely removing yourself or gently remind them ‘everyone grieves differently, but thank you’.
Use your judgement of how ready you are to take in other peoples experiences, as you may also find the sharing of grief helpful. You can’t control or anticipate what might be said and when, but ultimately you can use your judgement on accepting advice.
When the grief is fresh its okay to feel like the holidays get overshadowed by the grief. Grief is a process that can take years, so it is okay to not be okay during the holidays. You don’t have to hold onto the traditions and expectations you have of yourself if it means being able to manage your pain.
In just a year you may be in a different space that allows for more of the holiday traditions, and if you are not, that does not speak to a failing of yours, but how much that person impacted your life.