10 Ways to Cope with Grief During the Holidays
As the Thanksgiving Holiday comes to a close, and Black Friday has overtaken the nation, it’s sometimes easy to forget that not everyone likes the Holiday Season. I understand this whole-heartedly. In the summer of 2016, I lost my father from unnatural circumstances 3 weeks before my wedding. The day after Christmas, that same year, I lost my great-grandfather. 2020, my husband lost his sister to cancer (leap years aren’t kind to us). At 29 years old, I’ve faced a lot of loss.
Losing a loved one is hard. Whether it was a child, parent, grandparent, etc., that loss is felt in a myriad of ways. Grief knows no time, and it doesn’t always follow the same stages with everyone. Loss is especially hard during the Holiday Season, when you face scores of reminders of their impact on the family. Below are some ways you can cope with your loss during this Holiday Season.
First and foremost: take care of you. Eat healthy foods (if possible. It is the Holidays after all), get some sleep, exercise. You can’t take care of/host others if you don’t take care of yourself. (2020 APA)
Accept your emotions. There are waves of emotions that will likely come crashing over you. Accept them. Grief is complicated, and filled with tons of emotions—many of which may seem conflicting. (2020 APA)
After accepting your emotions, find safe ways to express your grief. Expression can come in many forms: art, gardening, cooking, writing, etc. This pent-up energy and emotion can overpower even the strongest of minds, so use it to create something beautiful. (2020 CDC) Who knows? Maybe you can start a new holiday tradition, or honor your loved one through a cherished recipe or art form.
Make a plan for the inevitable “triggers”. The Holidays are rife with triggers: favorite recipes, traditions, songs, stories, etc. Even if it’s your second, third, fourth, ad nauseam, the grief tends to return around the holiday season. My third Thanksgiving without my father, my husband and I hosted the family. I made my father’s favorite recipe: Portuguese Beans. I didn’t plan for that trigger…I didn’t know it was a trigger. I had a meltdown. Talk to your loved ones about potential triggers. Let them know ahead of time that you are still fragile this time of year. You’d be surprised at how understanding they’ll be if you just talk to them, rather than let your emotions get the better of you around that dinner table. (Smith et al., 2020)
Seek out the caring folks. No one grieves the same way. Some of your family members may just be angry, still in denial, etc. However, you all will need support, so seek the company of family members and friends that you know will be that support for you. Sometimes, it’s better to celebrate the holidays with found family, rather than blood. If you feel the need to distance yourself from the family members you “tolerated” during a normal Holiday Season, perhaps it would be best to avoid that side of the family. Create a “support group” of sorts with others to help lift you up in this time. (Bereavement and Grief)
Start a new tradition. Perhaps that loved one you lost wasn’t a big fan of the extravagant dinner around the table. Maybe they were more into charity, or small family gatherings. Perhaps they loved a certain Christmas or New Year’s tradition from their ancestry, but you never got the chance to really perform that with family. Whatever the case, starting a new tradition may help not only with your coping but also honor that loved one for (potentially) generations to come. (2020 Mayo Clinic)
Stay in the Present. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of ruminating over the past, or worrying about future loss. The unfortunate truth is this: you don’t have control over the past or the future with loss of a loved one. So focus on the present. Focus on your family and friends that are still here. Focus on what you can control: maintaining certain traditions, routines, etc. (2020 CDC)
Don’t tell others how to feel. Everyone grieves differently. Some of your family may withdraw for the Holidays. Others may get angry and bitter. You don’t have control over others’ emotions, so be sure to allow them to grieve in their own way. While you may need to set boundaries on behaviors, their feelings are their own to deal with. In the same vein. Be sure not to let anyone tell you how to feel. Again, you are the owner of your own emotions. Your other family members may set boundaries on behaviors (of which, you should respect), but don’t let anyone else tell you, “You’re not allowed to get angry/sad/withdrawn.” Your feelings and emotions are yours, and yours alone. (Smith et al., 2020)
Allow yourself other emotions. It’s okay to feel joy and happiness during the Holidays. Yes, losing a loved one is tough on everyone. However, the Holiday Season is also meant to be a season of joy. Don’t feel guilty for actually being happy during this season. Grief doesn’t always look like doom and gloom. You are allowed to be happy. (2020 Mayo Clinic)
(Smith, et al., 2020) Seek professional help if needed. Look, sometimes all the above coping mechanisms aren’t enough. There is always the possibility of “complicated grief” or grief that can morph into clinical depression. It’s ok to need help. That’s what the professionals are there for. While I can’t give you any medical advice (I’m just a nurse, after all), there are a couple of things you can look out for in your grieving process that may trigger a red flag:
Feeling like life isn’t worth living. If all the above coping strategies fall flat, and you still feel as though you don’t want to live, seek help right away. These feelings of hopelessness can morph into something much more dangerous.
Feeling numb/disconnected for longer than a couple months. It’s normal to feel disconnected or withdrawn during the Holiday Season, and in the weeks after the loss. However, if your disconnection/withdrawal lasts longer than a handful of weeks or months, it’s time to reach out to the professionals.
Inability to perform your daily tasks. It’s normal for your daily routine to be in upheaval during the Holidays, even if you haven’t lost anyone. It’s a stressful time of the year. However, if you have difficulty with re-establishing your norm after the Holidays, there may be something deeper than grief. Seek professional help.
Below, I’ve listed a few national bereavement hotlines and suicidal hotlines, in case you get to a dangerous point:
in the US: Crisis Call Center: 1-775-784-8090
in the UK: Cruse Bereavement Center: 0808 808 1677
in Australia: GriefLine: (03) 9935 7400
Suicide Hotline in the US: 1-800-273-8255
Suicide Hotline in the UK: 08457 90 90 90
Suicide Hotline in Australia: 13 11 14
For more Suicide Hotlines in other parts of the world, visit https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/
American Psychological Association. (2020, January 1). Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/grief. This article was adapted from a March 2011 post by Katherine C. Nordal, PhD.
Bereavement and Grief. Mental Health America. https://www.mhanational.org/bereavement-and-grief.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 11). Grief and Loss. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/grief-loss.html.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, November 14). Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/grief/art-20045340.
Prevention, I. A. for S. International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP). International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) - Resources: Crisis Centers. https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/.
Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2020, September). Coping with Grief and Loss. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm.