“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song tells us. But if you’re dealing with grief — namely the death of a loved one — the holiday season can become a barrage of painful reminders that your life isn’t what you had hoped.
Surrounded by holiday joy and cheer, you may feel overwhelmed by a calendar full of traditions that remind you of your loss, or pressured by how you think you “should” feel, or perhaps tempted to numb the pain. No matter what Hallmark says, the holidays are a stressful time, even for people who aren’t dealing with grief.
“Our cultural expectation is that holidays are the time when family comes together,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. If someone you love has died, though, “it’s going to be harder because you have this expectation of what you want it to be. The discrepancy between how things are and how we want them to be is more salient in the holiday season.”
Rather than resisting the reality of grief during the holidays, work toward a version of your experience that addresses what you need to honor your feelings — whatever they are. Here are six steps to help you handle grief at this time of year.
The first step is to acknowledge what you’re experiencing as a normal emotion. “What we resist persists,” Neff says. “If you try to force it or fix it, it makes it worse and will make the grief last longer.”
Give yourself and those you love compassion and kindness. There’s no right way to experience grief, no “appropriate” amount of time in which you have to “get over it.” “It’s really about giving yourself permission to be exactly where you are, and not to feel that you have to be someplace else in your grieving process,” Neff says.
It’s easy to get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, especially if you’re emotionally stressed. But having a bit of control over your circumstances makes the grieving process easier, and knowing what’s coming can lessen the overwhelm. Schedule free time on your calendar so you can exercise or take a walk or care for yourself in whatever way you need.
If you’re going to an office party or family gathering that you suspect will be difficult, take along a grief buddy. That’s a friend who can be your wing person, monitor alcohol intake, and maneuver a quick exit if you start flagging, explains Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT, yoga therapist and author of Mindfulness and Grief. Or perhaps make a plan for immediately after the event, like debriefing over tea with a friend or snuggling with your dog. Seek out confidantes who can listen without judgment or advice, who can be “a heart with ears,” says Ed Owens, director of advanced Grief Recovery Method programs for the Grief Recovery Institute in Bend, Ore.
The holiday traditions you used to adore can feel like a burden when you’re already struggling. It’s OK to take a break from making the cranberry sauce or attending annual parties, especially obligations that bring up too many painful memories or make you feel spread thin. Let go of traditions that aren’t serving you now, and know that you can always resume them another year. Steer clear of relatives who may be especially triggering for you.
You might want to replace the usual Black Friday shopping with a service trip or volunteering for a cause that resonates with the person you’re mourning, Stang suggests. Ignore objections from family or friends who don’t understand, and remind yourself that everyone grieves differently. “We can’t make everybody happy, and that’s hard,” Stang concedes. “But the most important thing is to reduce your suffering.”
People face higher risk of injury or death in the year after losing a loved one, Stang explains. That’s partly because of reduced immune functioning due to the stress, and partly because you’re more prone to accidents when exhausted and distracted. Guard against this by giving your body good nutrition, adequate sleep, and movement — any kind of movement, even if you’re not up for your usual exercise routine. Moving your body releases neurochemicals that give you hope and facilitate bonding with others, says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, psychologist, group fitness instructor, and author of The Joy of Movement.
“One of the things that surprises people who are grieving is that you don’t always get that immediate boost you’re used to from exercising,” McGonigal says. “You can feel as though this feeling that you’ve known your whole life is abandoning you when you need it most. Moving your body still helps; it just might feel different.”
In fact, group fitness classes are one of the few places you can connect with other people without feeling pressure to put on a happy face or play a certain role. “You get all the connection that comes from moving together and breathing together and sweating together,” McGonigal adds. It also wards off the tendency mourners might have to isolate themselves at a time when human connection can be so healing.
Even if a group fitness class doesn’t speak to you during this time, find a way to resist the common impulse to become isolated in grief. You need the help and support of your family and friends, and you’re not a burden. “Every human experiences grief,” Owens says. “It’s one of our most shared, fundamental emotional experiences.”
Many organizations offer professional support, whether through grief counselors, support groups, or services provided by local hospitals. Check bulletin boards and websites for announcements, or try your local mental-health associations. One good resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which can offer referrals to grief resources, counselors, and groups. The Grief Recovery Institute’s handbook is also available in libraries and bookstores nationwide, or you can find free e-books on the organization’s website.
Owens teaches people to communicate the unsaid emotions or messages to a lost loved one. “We carry these things with us that we didn’t have a chance to tell the other person — things we didn’t have a chance to do that we desperately wanted to do,” he says. “We identify what we wish had been better or different and then we can take some actions around those emotions,” he says. You can find closure by acknowledging and sharing your conflicted feelings, perhaps by writing a letter to your loved one or talking with a trusted friend about what you’ve been thinking.
You can also find ways to honor your loved ones, such as putting pictures on a table by the door, where you can pause in a moment of mindfulness. Or perhaps create a new holiday tradition in remembrance of them, or simply let yourself feel their presence during the season, Stang says. “They’re no longer physically here; how do we continue our love even though they’re physically absent?”
Karen Paul, 56, an essayist and fundraising consultant in Takoma Park, Md., lost her husband Jonathan to glioblastoma. She plans to immerse herself in a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, every month this year, to “wash myself of grief.” Mark Cobb, 59, of Silver Spring, Md., sent a floral bouquet every December 21st to his best friend Matthew’s mother to honor the anniversary of Matthew’s funeral after he died of AIDS in 1991. “The last bouquet I sent was to her funeral. If anything closed out that chapter, it was that last bouquet,” recalls Cobb, who now feels only the sweetness of memories. “How lucky am I that those people were in my life.”