Coping with Grief and Holidays
Updated: Jul 18
Why are holidays so hard? Death, the anticipation of death, or the uncertainty of days ahead can have us dealing with the holidays through a completely different lens than in years past. We are used to celebrating and may not feel like it now. But regardless of our feelings, we are surrounded with the lights, smells, sounds, and hustle-and-bustle that even in normal times can be stressful. In grief, these things can trigger an emotional response that can leave us emotionally drained and overwhelmed. You may find it difficult to feel happy or to feel like participating. “No other time of year evokes such strong imagery of family togetherness… More than anything, the holidays seem to accentuate what others have and we have lost.” (E. Levang). Holidays and special days like anniversaries and birthdays can create a renewed sense of grief, feelings of sadness and longing, or even the resolve to go above and beyond in making merry. These are all normal responses. The questions is, “Am I doing these things because I find comfort and/or joy in them this year, or do I need a break?”
Perhaps you’ve been told time is limited and this will be the last holiday season with your family. It is perfectly normal to be grieving the loss of what might have been while coming to terms with the future. The bittersweet time spent with family is often filled with either the unspoken mutual pretense that everything is all right or is spent squeezing in every bit of meaningful time and memory-making. From a professional perspective, mutual pretense serves no healing purpose. And while you may want to put on a good face and keep everything light-hearted, this does not mean everyone should avoid the fact this is a special time to cherish and pretend everything is normal. It really IS okay to be grieving and celebrating at the same time. “Where there is light, there must be shadow, where there is shadow there must be light.” (H. Murakami).
So How Do I Navigate?
There are no right or wrongs to grief and everyone grieves in their own way. Maybe this is your first holiday season since a friend or family member died, and you are uncertain how you will manage the usual tasks. Maybe you are a few years out, and you still struggle with special days. Sometimes, we have to reevaluate and put things in perspective. Things you once managed with ease may be overwhelming. Things you managed to complete but where a challenge in the past, may be unbearable.
…. Holiday numb: too numb to function in normal capacity
…. Holiday angry: you may feel anger due to dwindling support; likely a second holiday or further out
…. Holiday go-for-it: feeling comfortable or maybe overcompensation
What Do I Do?
Do what you can, not what you cannot. Plan to enjoy, and plan for other feelings, too. What is important about this holiday or this special day? What is not important?
Prioritize what you really need from this time and give yourself permission to take a pass when things are more than you are ready to handle. Say you attend a party and it’s too much. Take a breather for a few and then decide if you can stay or if you need to leave. It’s okay to enjoy for a little while and cut out early.
Make a list of the things you usually do and then decide what you can handle and still want to do. Some things may be okay to continue and other things may be energy sappers.
Accept your limitations when considering invitations and obligations. Do you have to host at your house? Do you have to attend the work party? Do you have to send cards to everyone, or at all? If you feel like doing these things and it brings you pleasure then continue as usual, or modify to fit your current needs.
Expect people to either ask you over and over “How are you doing?” or to avoid the question and your grief altogether for fear of upsetting you. If you are comfortable talking about the person, be intentional about saying their name and sharing stories. Others will follow your lead.
Ditch the idea of “stages of grief.” Grief is not linear and does not progress through the stages you may have always heard about. A newer theory is that we have four tasks we are working on at the same time and with this can come many emotions: 1) accept the reality of the loss, 2) work through your pain and grief, 3) adjust to the world without your loved one in it, and 4) find ways to maintain a connection while embarking on a new life (J.W. Worden).
Seek support… and be reasonable about it. People are usually willing to help if asked, and you may need to be very specific. Like enlisting a friend to shop with you or having someone get decorations from the attic. This may also be a good time to enlist the help of a grief counselor or attend a support group.
Evaluate your routines. Don’t want to go to the mall? Try shopping online or consider gift cards. Tree too much to decorate? Get a small tabletop tree or skip it altogether. You have to be okay with where you are in your grief journey, and grief won’t be automatically on hold just because it’s a holiday.
Don’t overdo the food, the budget, the alcohol, or other numbers because of emotions. Reality is still waiting in the end. Set boundaries for yourself.
Call a friend or support person when needed, and commit to seek professional help if you feel things are not normal or that your grief is complicated. There are many common and valid manifestations (a sign or symptom) of grief that we often ignore or dismiss. If ignored, symptoms can increase and may become problematic. People often experience such things as confusion, disorientation, withdrawal, and exhaustion in grief while at the same time wondering, “What is wrong with me?” A professional can evaluate normal manifestations of grief and provide you with coping skills. You may also need medical attention.
Self-care is about restoration and investing time in yourself. It is something you maintain control of when honestly, you may be feeling out of control. It is common to push yourself physically and mentally, especially if you were caretaking prior to the death, continue to physically care for someone like an elderly parent, have young children in the home, work at a job, or are elderly or ill yourself. There are few of us that don’t fall into one of these categories.
More than likely, there are things you have neglected, like doctor’s appointments, or things you’ve felt guilty about enjoying. Try a few of these suggestions:
Get a massage – There is evidence that massage can be used to help grief. Humans naturally crave touch. Studies show that massage therapy can do wonders to release tension and fulfill the need for some kind of touch. We often store tension in our muscles.
Read a good book – Dive into a fictional book and get lost in another world for a while. Read a biography of someone you’ve always thought interesting. Pick-up some books on grief and self-care. The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie is a great read for this time in your life.
Listen to favorite music – You may wish to listen to music your loved one enjoyed, listen to music you liked together, or try a completely new genre. You may even attend a concert or performance.
Pray or meditate – Spiritual connectedness is restorative to the soul. Attend a worship service. Many people are unable to attend while they were a caregiver and miss this part of their lives.
Use aromatherapy – Essential oils are soothing and can even have healing properties. Get a diffuser or take a long soak with scented bath salts.
Spend time with a friend – Do lunch or coffee, go to the movies, enjoy a nature walk, or just hang out at home. Call your friend that always has your back. You may need someone to just hold space with you, to just be, and let you feel and experience whatever you need to without fear of judgement or platitudes.
Attend an art or cooking class – Engage your brain and body in an activity that can absorb your thoughts and allow some freedom. Creativity produces something. It may have been a while since you’ve felt productive.
Take a nap that doesn’t interfere with your normal nightly rest.
Use an app like CALM to decompress, meditate, breath intentionally, or listen to sleep stories.
Go to the salon – Get a manicure and/or pedicure. Get a fresh haircut or color. Men can also treat themselves to a professional shave.
Exercise regularly – Even a 10-minute walk is sufficient to cause a positive chemical change in the body and release endorphins.
Pay attention to proper nutrition – Many people lose their appetite and may even lose weight following a death. Another issue may be cooking for one instead of two or suddenly finding yourself the cook. Some of us overeat to occupy time or push feelings away. Lack of nutrition can lessen our ability to cope.
Write in a journal – Write for yourself, write to your loved one, create poetry, write prayers… just write to express your feelings. Journals can be private or shared. As you reflect over time, you will see how far you’ve come.
Keep or schedule doctor’s visits and take medication as prescribed.
As mentioned earlier, one of Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning is to find ways to maintain a connection with your loved one. These times of connectedness often come from doing something intentionally or choosing to see things in a different way. It often means you make space for memories, thoughts, and feelings—even if they are painful.
Here are a dozen ideas to help you begin this task. Some of these are more holiday specific while others can be any time of year. If none of these are really your style, make your own way.
Light a candle, set a place setting, remember the person in the family prayer, or make your loved one’s favorite recipe.
Attend a candlelight service at church. The local funeral home often has a memorial service around the holidays as well.
Buy or create a special ornament. Or hang ornaments that belonged to your loved one. You can recycle these special ornaments by giving them as gifts to family for use on their own tree.
Wear a special item like a piece of jewelry, a tie, or a scarf. These can also be refashioned in unexpected ways. For example, a tie can be converted to a pocket scarf or button cover. Clothing can be converted to quilts, pillows, bags, or teddy bears. Have a jeweler design a new setting for an old gemstone.
Use social media. I have a dear friend that often tags her momma in her Facebook posts even a few years later. On birthdays or death anniversaries you can post a picture and ask friends to share memories. Start a digital wave of light by taking a picture of a candle lit for your loved one and post it. Ask people in your circle to do the same on their page.
Have a celebratory dinner on significant dates. This may mean going to your loved one’s favorite restaurant, or you may host a potluck. Consider cooking their favorite or famous recipe at home with friends and setting a place for them, drinking their favorite wine, or using their china.
Continue to celebrate holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, Halloween, etc. Whether you’ve lost a parent, a spouse, or a child, it doesn’t change the role that person played in your life or you played in theirs. Maybe dad always had a cookout on Independence Day or mom always had hot cider at Halloween while the kids carved pumpkins. Honor their memory by upholding their traditions if this sounds like something you’d like to do.
Don’t let difficult days creep up without making plans. You know each year will have seasonal holidays as well as personal ones that never change. You may wish to visit meaningful locations on these days like favorite places, the cemetery or other resting places, or engage in activities your loved one enjoyed like going to a movie. Have a cupcake for them, plant a tree, buy a gift, or send someone flowers. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son Ikky died young. Ikky’s favorite color was yellow so Dwight sent his wife Mamie yellow roses each year on Ikky’s birthday. Invite someone close to join you on these days.
When planning a vacation, go down memory lane and visit places your loved one visited or lived (or always wanted to and never made it).
Connect with their old friends you may have lost touch with.
Plan and get a memorial tattoo. Many a tattoo has connection to someone who has died. I’ve sometimes seen a person’s handwriting be transferred. Some people will even do this as a group.
If it suits you, see the gifts that appear. Feathers, birds, rainbows, bells, dragonflies, words or symbols, and many other things often provide a spiritual connection and comfort that we feel is meant for us. It seems when we are open to look for these gifts, they appear all around us.
About the Author:
Simone Brock is a Bereavement Specialist at Arkansas Hospice in North Little Rock. She is also a former teacher and funeral director, has one adult daughter, and resides on a small farm in El Paso, Arkansas, with her husband and two dogs. She is an ardent supporter of death, dying, and bereavement education. She feels connected to ovarian cancer education due to the death of her own grandmother from ovarian cancer at age 41.