Grieving During the Holidays
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
The holidays are often stressful for most folks. Below are nine ways to survive the holidays when grieving.
The holidays are often stressful for most folks. There is an expectation to make this time of year magical and delightful- to have the most beautiful, awe inspiring decorated Christmas tree, gourmet feasts and elegantly decorated presents under the tree. But if we are being honest with ourselves, we most likely approach the holidays with mixed feelings. While we love the idea of the holidays- joy and peace filling our hearts and homes. Rarely however, do we actually feel joyful and peaceful. Instead we are often stressed-out about spending time with our in-laws let alone our own family, what with the arguments over politics and hurt feelings over who didn’t come into town. We worry about how to coordinate our time between various family, friends and work obligations. As our stress levels rise, we become irritable and short-tempered. We fantasize about skipping the whole thing altogether. Adding grief into the mix can send anyone over the edge of what one is able to cope with.
Grieving the loss of a loved one during the holidays can make this time of year unbearable. Below are nine ways to survive the holidays when grieving.
1. Give yourself Grace. Give yourself permission to be honest with how you’re feeling and then show yourself compassion. Our western culture likes to pride itself on being strong and stoic. There may be times and places where that’s a really useful skill to have but while grieving, it doesn’t need to be your “go to” coping skill. You don’t always have to be “strong”. Actually, you are under no obligation to be strong for anyone including yourself. Let those unrealistic expectations go. Know that some moments you’ll feel better than others and that’s OK. Some days you might feel angry and bitter and other days you might feel like you can’t get out of bed. Show yourself some kindness and gentleness. Remind yourself that it won’t always be this difficult.
2. Celebrate in a way that feels authentic. Realize that you are free to change cultural practices or traditions. Making small or even big changes are OK. You can always do something different next year. It’s important to consider aspects that are really meaningful for you and feel free to skip the rest. For example, if you celebrate Christmas, maybe you don’t put up all of the decorations; maybe select some key decorations and leave the rest for next year. Or instead of buying gifts, you can make a donation to a charity in memory of your loved one. Instead of preparing an elaborate holiday meal, do a scaled down dinner with a few favorite dishes or plan a potluck style dinner.
3. Plan ahead and be flexible. There are going to be some situations that can catch you off guard. It’s better to have a plan on how to manage those situations than to be left overwhelmed. One that always comes up is the inevitable, “How are doing?” question from well-wishers. These are the folks who aren’t necessarily in your inner circle. Sometimes they just don’t know what to say, other times they truly care and want to show their concern for you. Consider what your response might be. This allows you to be in control of your story. You get to decide what you share, when you share and to whom you share how you are in fact doing. It’s also helpful to develop an “exit plan” for when you are feeling overwhelmed at a gathering. You might consider getting some fresh air and glass of water or you might need to leave and go home. Is there a someone you can incorporate into your “exit plan”? If you can anticipate what might be triggers for you and have a plan you’ll feel more in control and better able to manage your ability to cope.
4. Connect with others. When you are grieving, it’s tempting to isolate, but doing so can make it worse. We are social beings, we need community and connection to survive. We need our social network to help us feel heard and seen when we are most vulnerable. Now, who you chose to be seen and heard by is up to you. Letting those you trust into your world who can be there to listen and pass you tissues can provide a sense of safety and security when we feel unmoored.
5. Be Mindful of Your Feelings. You may think that this obvious. How can you not be aware of the painful and depressing feelings, right? Well, it’s really difficult for our body to feel such painful feelings all the time. So sometimes we try to avoid them by keeping ourselves busy or bingeing on junk food, alcohol or drugs. These only makes it worse by adding a layer of guilt, additional health issues and the ultimately the consequences of denying our feelings. The fix you may get from these self-medicating actions is only temporary. The grief will still be waiting for you. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid your grief, no way around. You must go through. Here are some ways that you can mind your feelings in a more healthy way.
a. Keep a journal. Keeping a journal as a place to write down your thoughts and feelings can help you become more practiced at recognizing and naming your thoughts and feelings. You might come to realize that you actually feel a range of different emotions throughout the day with several different kinds of triggers. You might also realize that you are able better able to manage those feelings once you become more aware of them.
b. Consider creating. This could be creating art, doing a craft or a home repair project. You don’t have to feel like you are making “real art”. Simply the act of creating allows for your emotions to come out without needing to use words and it provides your mind a break from grief. Creating is a restorative practice that grounds us in the present moment.
c. Take a yoga class. This can be very helpful in allowing your body and your mind to relax by become aware of your breath and how your body feels. Again, grief impacts our body not just our minds. By connecting with our physical body in a compassionate way, we can begin to soften and become more mindful of grief.
6. Practice self-care. You’ve probably heard this a lot. The importance of self-care is often minimized and can feel like an indulgence, excessive, selfish, or even unnecessary. Practicing self-care is vital to our ability to manage stress. We must give our mind and body healthy ways to relieve stress so that we are able to tolerate the ongoing stress of grief.
a. Rest. Again this can seem obvious but it’s one of the first to be forgotten. We can get wrapped up in “doing” that we neglect one of the most important and yet the easiest self-care practice. It’s normal to feel exhausted more frequently, over the holidays and when grieving. Grieving is hard on your body- emotionally and physically. You may find sleeping at night to be difficult so finding times throughout the day that you can simply stop what you are doing and just rest is critical. Resting doesn’t have to be sleeping or even lying down. Just find a place that is comfortable and free from the typical distractions (your phone, TV, other people) and just be. Try practicing mindfulness by noticing your breath and thoughts without any judgment.
b. Eat Healthy food. Grieving is like a marathon. You need to care for your body by giving it a nutritious diet that can sustain it for the long haul. You may not feel like eating, so it’s crucial that the food you eat is going to be the best for your body. When we are grieving or experiencing stress, we often reach for comfort foods that with sugar and/or fat. This can be easy to do over the holidays. It’s certainly OK to have some of the those foods but it shouldn’t be main staples right now.
c. Engage in physical activity. This allows the body to discharge the stress hormones that have built up in the body. It also provides a boost of the feel good hormones, endorphins. Take a walk outside, get fresh air and change in scenery. The point here isn’t about getting a workout in but rather just moving your body, increasing the oxygen and blood flow throughout the body.
d. Drink water. It’s easy to forget to drink water. When we don’t drink enough water we can get headaches and muscle aches which only compound the physical toll of grief on our bodies.
e. Do things that give you comfort. Be intentional about being compassionate to yourself. Considers these to be hugs that you give yourself. By doing these things you are bringing yourself to the present moment and providing yourself with both a mental and physical release. Here are examples of things you might try:
i. drinking a cup of tea,
ii. wearing comfortable clothes.
iii. going for a walk in nature,
iv. taking a relaxing bath or shower,
v. lighting a candle,
vi. buying fresh flowers,
vii. getting a massage
7. Communicate your needs. When sharing what you need with your family and friends be honest, let them know that you that don’t need to be fixed, instead what you need is to be heard. However, it’s important to understand that family and friends often don't really know what to say to a griever. Usually their intentions are well meaning but often times they give platitudes that can be unhelpful or even hurtful. They wan and often need you to tell them what you need or don’t need right now.
8. Share memories. The act of sharing memories with others allows us to feel connected to others and have a shared experience. Sometimes our memories can cause us to laugh and remember happy times with our loved one. By sharing memories, we are beginning to place the loss in the past and integrate the loss into our lives. Try lighting a candle and asking family members to share favorite memories of your loved one.
9. Work with a grief therapist- Find an understanding therapist who can help you make sense of your loss and process your grief. Our society doesn’t do grief well and fortunately, it’s not something most of have lots of experience with. It can be difficult to manage the often quite difficult and conflicting feelings. An experienced grief counselor can help you learn helpful coping skills to deal with the pain caused by loss.
The holidays bring an added layer of stress when grieving. It’s important to find ways to manage. These 9 ways outlined above can help you survive the holidays while grieving. If you are finding it difficult to cope with your grief, it might mean that you could benefit from grief counseling. Grief Counseling can help you understand how and why you feel stuck so that you can move forward in your grief journey. Call me today to schedule a free 15-minute consultation.