Grief during the Holidays: Ways to Cope
by Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC Grief Counselor



"Happy Holidays!" is a greeting we hear often at this time of year - but if you're mourning the loss of a loved one, the holiday season may be anything but happy for you. Perhaps there is no time of the year when we are more aware of the empty space our loved one has left behind than during the busy holiday season.

Holidays can create feelings of dread and anxiety in those of us who are bereaved. The clichéd images of family togetherness and the often unrealistic expectations of a season filled with picture-perfect, joyful gatherings can cause tremendous stress for those who are not grieving - let alone for those in the midst of the painful, isolating experience of loss. In our culture and in our mass media, the pressure to produce warm and wonderful holiday memories for and with our families is enormous. But the reality is that, when we're mourning the loss of a loved one, we may not have the energy we ordinarily do. When we're surrounded by nostalgia and traditions, even the happiest memories can hurt. When we're in the midst of pain, and the rest of the world is in the mood to give thanks and celebrate, we need to find ways to manage our pain and get through the season with a minimum of stress.

How does one celebrate the holidays when a loved one is so sorely missed? Creating new rituals and new traditions that may pay tribute to the memory of the deceased is one way to survive - and perhaps even embrace - the holidays when a loved one has died.

Suggestions for Coping with Grief During the Holidays

Have a family meeting. List all the things you ordinarily do for the holidays (sending greeting cards, decorating the house, stringing outdoor lights, putting up a tree, holiday baking, entertaining business associates, buying something special to wear, going to parties, visiting friends, exchanging gifts, preparing a big meal, etc.) Decide together what's important to each of you, what you want to do this year, what you can let go of, and what you can do differently. For each task on the list, ask yourself these questions:

Would the holidays be the holidays without doing this? Is this something I really want to do? Do I do it freely, or out of habit or tradition? Is it a one-person job, or can it be a group effort? Who's responsible for getting it done? Do I really like doing it?

Do some things differently this year. Trying to recreate the past may remind you all the more that your loved one is missing. This year, try celebrating the holidays in a totally different way. Nothing is the same as it used to be anyway. Go to a restaurant. Visit relatives or friends. Travel somewhere you've never gone before. If you decide to put up a tree, put it in a different location and make or buy different decorations for it. Hang a stocking in your loved one's memory, and ask each family member to express their thoughts and feelings by writing a note to, from or about your loved one, and place the notes in that special stocking for everyone to read. Buy a poinsettia for your home as a living memorial to your loved one for the holiday season. Find and read some of the many helpful articles online, written specifically to help those who are grieving get through the holidays; you'll find links to many of them on my Web site's Handling the Holidays.

Do other things more simply. You don't have to discard all your old traditions forevermore, but you can choose to observe the holidays on a smaller scale this year.

Take good care of yourself. Build time in your day to relax, even if you're having trouble sleeping. Eat nourishing, healthy meals, and if you've lost your appetite, eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day. (Sweet, sugary foods are everywhere, from Halloween until Easter, but too much sugar will deplete what little energy you have.) Get some daily exercise, even if it's just a walk around the block. Avoid drinking alcohol, which intensifies depression and disrupts normal sleep.

Just do it. We all know that we ought to think positively, eat right, exercise more and get enough rest - but grief by its very nature robs us of the energy we need to do all those good and healthy things. Accept that in spite of what we know, it's often very hard to do what's good for us-then do it anyway. Don't wait until you feel like doing it.

Pay attention to yourself. Notice what you're feeling and what it is you need. Feelings demand expression, and when we acknowledge them and let them out, they go away. Feelings that are "stuffed" don't go anywhere; they just fester and get worse. If you need help from others, don't expect them to read your mind. It's okay to ask for what you need. Besides, doing a favor for you during the holidays may make them feel better, too. Be patient and gentle with yourself, and with others as well.

Expect to feel some pain. Plan on feeling sad at certain moments throughout the season, and let the feelings come. Experience the pain and tears, deal with them, then let them go. Have faith that you'll get through this and that you will survive.

Seek support from others. Grieving is hard work, and it shouldn't be done alone. You need to share your experience with someone who understands and accepts the pain of your loss. If your spouse, relative or friend cannot be the source of that support, you can find it elsewhere. Many hospices offer special workshops in the months of November and December to help survivors get through the holiday season. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization maintains a database of hospices for each state in the United States. To search for a hospice in your own community, go to Find a Hospice Program.

Give something of yourself to others. As alone as you may feel in your grief, one of the most healing things you can do for yourself is to be with other people, especially during the holidays. Caring for and giving to others will nourish and sustain you, and help you to feel better about yourself. If you can bring yourself to do so, visit someone in a nursing home or hospice, or volunteer your time at your church or synagogue, or at the local humane society or animal shelter. Do whatever you can, and let it be enough.

Copyright © 2003 – 2010 by Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT. All rights reserved.


Please visit this page again. More articles will appear here shortly.