By Jessica Landry, M.Ed., RP (Qualifying) – What are some ways to manage grief during the holidays?
The holidays are known as a time of joy and cheer, an opportunity to gather together and spend time with loved ones. But for people who have lost someone dear to them, this time of the year can be filled with pain and sorrow. While festivities and celebrations take place around them, feelings of grief can be amplified, and it can feel like their world is falling apart. This year, COVID-19 has left thousands of families grieving the loss of loved ones. For those not impacted directly by COVID-19, the related lockdowns kept many families from saying goodbye to loved ones or conducting important rituals like wakes and funerals.
Finding ways to cope with your loss may feel overwhelming, particularly during the holidays. While the grief and pain will still be present, it is possible to find ways to ease your suffering during this difficult time.
Tips to Cope with Grief During the Holidays
Give yourself permission to grieve. There is a misconception in society that you need to push through the pain of grief as quickly as possible and move forward with life. It is important to remember that there is no deadline for grief, and people heal at different rates. Allow yourself to feel the emotions that accompany your grief during the holidays and respect your boundaries as you move through them.
Create new traditions. Family and friends are often central to the traditions people create, especially during the holidays. For some, trying to do things in the exact same way once a loved one has passed away may feel unbearable. It’s okay to do things differently, and it’s alright not to feel celebratory.
Allow yourself to feel positive emotions too. It is common for people who are grieving to feel guilty or like they are betraying the person who passed away if they experience things like joy or happiness. This can be especially prevalent during the holidays, where for years their presence was indispensable. Feeling positive emotions does not mean that the love is gone; it is sign of your resilience. Grief is complex, and it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions during the process.
Create a ritual in that person’s memory. This may be as simple as lighting a candle at the dinner table, or doing an activity you enjoyed together. Whatever ritual you choose, it should be something that you connect with and that is a way for you to honor them in your own unique way.
Tips to Support a Coworker, Friend, or Family Member Experiencing Grief During the Holidays
Check in on them: Make sure that they are taking care of their needs, such as eating and sleeping. If you notice they are not, help connect them to support them. In addition, while some may feel like experiencing their emotions alone, others may find relief in the company of others. Ask them about their needs and adjust your support accordingly.
Allow them to speak about the deceased person: Speaking about the loss can actually be very therapeutic and healing for the person grieving (Hartwell-Walker, 2018). Simply creating space for them to express themselves without being judged can be the greatest gift you can give them this holiday season (Hartwell-Walker, 2018).
Resist offering advice: Everybody grieves in different ways. It’s important to respect the process they are going through. Resist the temptation to tell them how you think they should be doing things. Simply be present and honor the way in which they are experiencing grief.
The Global Pandemic: An Added Layer of Grief
Increasingly, people are living through the loss of jobs, financial freedom, and their ability to spend time with their families and friends. Many will also feel the loss of traditions as COVID-19 restrictions force them to spend the holidays in isolation. Others have experienced the loss of activities, places, and experiences that were important to them. While most do not associate these experiences with grief, naming it for what it is can be helpful in the healing process. Among many things, grief can be experienced as an ongoing sense of loss of identity, which can be very difficult to process.
In addition, the feeling of uncertainty regarding the future is bringing forth a collective sense of anticipatory grief. That is to say, many people are living with an ongoing sense of inevitable and unpredictable loss in an uncertain future. Overall, many people have lost their sense of safety and are afraid about what the future holds during these scary times. In a world that is constantly changing as restrictions are adapted, there are many unknowns surrounding the holidays this year and how it will take place.
Tips on Coping With the Holidays During the Pandemic
Self-Compassion: Acknowledge that you are going through a period of loss and that it is difficult to navigate. Be kind with yourself when you are feeling the emotions associated with it and recognize that it is a normal part of the process. Death is not the only cause of grief.
Prioritize social connections: While COVID-19 restrictions may limit social gatherings, finding ways to connect with others can help alleviate feelings of social isolation and loneliness during an already difficult time. Having virtual get togethers online with friends and loved ones is a unique way to celebrate. Taking time to engage in activities with the people who live with you can be helpful as well.
Focus on what you can control: Thoughts about the future and what the holidays will hold can be difficult with continuously changing rules and restrictions. Instead, try to focus your attention on aspects of it that you that are in your control. Examples can include, engaging in activities that are comforting, connecting with others online, and planning your meals.
 Wolfelt, A. (2005). Healing your holiday grief: 100 practical ideas for blending mourning and celebration during the holiday season. Companion Press.
Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.