Grief During the Holidays

Whether it’s your first year dealing with the loss of a loved one, a loved one died during a previous holiday season, or the holidays just remind you of someone you’ve lost, grieving during the fall and winter holidays is tough. In fact, it can be tougher than the anniversary of the loss. Everything we see about end-of-the year holidays says we’re supposed to celebrate, be surrounded by family, and be in a cheerful mood.

If you’re grieving this holiday season, know your goal may not be to have a traditional happy celebration, and that’s absolutely fine. Give yourself time and space and practice self-care. Nothing will magically make grief go away, it’s a personal process that takes time to understand, but a little bit of planning may help you better manage feelings and expectations around the holidays.

Feel Your Emotions: It’s Okay to be Sad

It’s also ok to feel happy. Grief is different for everyone, and there is no “right way to grieve.” It’s a complicated, nonlinear pathway that is different for everyone. It’s also okay to feel grief for something other than the loss of a person. You can grieve the end of a relationship, a serious illness, a change in routine, financial stability, and other big life changes. Let yourself feel your feelings, and talk to family and friends about your needs so they know how to support you. If you’re struggling with complicated grief or depression – if you can’t function with day-to-day life – consider getting professional help.

Specifically during the end-of-year holidays, be aware that simply going to the store can be triggering. As soon as Halloween is over, Americans go into overdrive with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, and many, many other religious and secular observances. It may be hard to avoid decorations, songs, celebrations, and clothing that trigger painful emotions as you grieve during the holiday season. Participate as much or as little as you want to. Opt for online shopping so you miss the bustle and decorations of stores, skip holiday parties or only go for a short time, and give yourself an easy out if you become overwhelmed.

You may find that volunteering or donating time/money is helpful to counteract emotions of anger, sadness, and depression. Helping others can connect you to your community and to other people and help you feel better about yourself. It can also give you a sense of purpose, especially if you volunteer with or donate to a charity that relates to the person you lost. All of this contributes to an improved overall sense of wellbeing.

Plan our Your Holidays

Making a plan may help manage the stress and anticipation of grieving a loss during the holidays. Discuss with loved ones whether you want to have a traditional celebration or try something new. Participate as much as you feel comfortable with and remember that you don’t have to stay until the end of a party – go for as long as you want.

Youturn Health peer coach Annalynn Barnett recently spoke on the You Learn You Turn podcast about advice for the approaching the holidays as a grieving person. Annalynn lost her husband, mother, and father within a two-year period and shared advice for someone unsure of how to celebrate the holidays during a time of grief. “I recommend that you just have a conversation about it because everybody’s different,” she said. “I think having a plan in place, especially in what I call the Year of Firsts – for the first birthday, the first anniversary, the first Thanksgiving and Christmas and Valentine’s – have some type of game plan, even if it’s just something small…”

For example, for her first holiday after losing her husband and both parents, Annalynn spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with friends and family for a more traditional celebration. Heading into her second holiday season after the loss, she thought of trying a combination of new and old: traditional celebrations mixed with new activities like serving at a soup kitchen. Regardless of whether you want something traditional or new, Annalynn advised having a conversation with a few close people to find a plan you’re comfortable with. “It’s going to be different,” Barnett explained, “and for some people, it’s good to do something completely different.”

TL;DR: Grieving During the Holidays

Honor your emotions, don’t force yourself to be happy. If you’re struggling with grief, seek help from friends, family, or a counselor. Give yourself a break, don’t be afraid to feel sad during the holiday. Likewise, it’s okay if find yourself feeling happy. Feel what you feel.

Don’t be afraid to create new traditions, but don’t feel you have to do away with the old ones. Honor the memories you’ve made with the loved one you’ve lost. You may want to come up with a plan for what you want to do, or don’t want to do, during the holidays to help manage stress and anticipation of the unknown.

To read more specifically around grief and holidays, in The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions, authors Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert De Vries share their stories of losing spouses and eventually finding reasons to celebrate holidays again.

To learn more on grief in general, please visit our Grief and Trauma resource page.