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Grief Unwrapped: Navigating Grief during the Holiday Season

Updated: Apr 26

Ah, the holidays—a time of joy, laughter, and the relentless assault of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" on every radio station. More like, Ugh – the holidays…especially for those of us who are grieving. For many, it's a season to revel in merriment and indulge in festive excess. But for those who are grieving, it can be a time of immense pain and loneliness.

The constant reminders of traditions, memories, and the absence of a loved one can make it feel like the world is moving past you, while you are stuck in a fuzzy haze of loss. The expectations to be cheerful and festive in the face of grief can be irritating, invalidating, and isolating. Supports may not be as readily available due to family commitments furthering our sense of loneliness and the strong desire to just get through this dreadful time of year.

I’m here to remind you that it is okay to grieve during the holidays, in fact, it’s the expectation that this time of year is going to be difficult as f*ck. But I’m also here to remind you that there are ways to navigate this season. So, let's explore why grief during the holidays is like trying to untangle Christmas lights–frustrating and messy–and discuss ways to ride the wave of grief during the holiday season.

Why Grieving During the Holidays is Particularly Difficult

The Resurfacing of Memories

With the holiday season often comes a flood of memories: decorating the tree with your loss loved one, baking cookies, watching cringey Hallmark movies, and participating in the very special traditions that you and your loved one have created throughout the years. It's not just the obvious triggers like hearing holiday music or passing by beautifully decorated homes. Even the smallest details, like the scent of a favorite holiday food or the glow of a candle, can generate a sudden wave of grief that feels like an aching gut-punch, leading to a lump in your throat, tears in your eyes, and a sense of overwhelming panic. While we may admire these memories and think back on them longingly, they are also painful reminders that our loved one is no longer present to participate in the furthering of these joyful experiences.

The Cheerful Choir of Loneliness

Looking back on memories and acknowledging our loved one’s absence may bring a well of loneliness. The cloud of isolation feels even more inescapable, as you observe those around you basking in the warmth of holiday cheer and witness happy families and brightly colored decorations adorning every street corner. When everyone else seems to be in high spirits, it only highlights how isolated you feel in your grief. Such a state can lead us to to closing our window shades, turning our holiday lights off, and disconnecting from others and the bustling world of holiday shopping and celebration.

The Lack of a Support System

For all its warmth and togetherness that come with the holiday season, for those of us grieving the season can also be a time when support feels as scarce as a parking spot at the mall on Black Friday. Alongside the usual level of sadness, there might be an added layer of sadness, loneliness, and disappointment as friends who usually offer support might be less available due to their own family commitments. It becomes glaringly obvious that those who have not experienced loss may find it difficult to support those who are grieving; distracted by holiday festivities and family togetherness, our supports are bombarded with other responsibilities. Our supports may also find it difficult to know how to support us during this time of year, as it is the social norm to be joyful around the holidays.

The Guilt of Joy

We may surprise ourselves when we are able to steal moments of joy and happiness during this time of year. Laughing merrily with a family member after they drop the casserole, or during a cheesy holiday romcom. This may invite feelings of guilt or a narrative that we are not “grieving correctly.” Guilt can be that green furry Grinch that steals any semblance of peace during the holidays. We may feel badly for experiencing joy without our loved one present and confused when we return to the feelings comprised of grief like the switch of a light.

Yes, it can be difficult to reconcile the warmth and cheer of the holidays with the emptiness and pain of grief. However, experiencing joy does not mean we're forgetting our loss. In fact, honoring a loss’s memory by finding a reason to smile can be a powerful way to keep their spirit alive. I also like to remind myself that my loved one would want me to experience joy even without their presence.

Some people are often surprised to learn that joy is also part of grief. You have permission to feel sadness, joy, and everything in between. It can be helpful to embrace the happiness and acknowledge the guilt, while recognizing that both emotions can coexist and neither diminishes our love for those we miss.

The Ticking Clock of Time

The holidays, with their countdowns and resolutions, can feel like a neon sign blinking, "Another year without them." It's a stark reminder that life is moving forward, but your grief is a constant shadow of a companion, unaffected by the changing calendar pages. As the New Year approaches you may feel anxious at the thought of being further away from the time spent with our loved one. We may struggle to remember features of their face, tones of their voice, and conversations once had. Our loved one may feel further away from us as the months get torn off our desk calendar. It’s a difficult fact to make peace with, as we desperately search our memory bank and photos to keep ourselves as connected with our loved one as possible.

Navigating Grief During the Holidays

While there is no right way to navigate the holiday season while grieving, there are some ways to wrestle with the Christmas lights of grief.

1. Acknowledge Your Feelings

During holiday festivities, societal expectations can create an atmosphere where emotions are expected to be neatly tucked away. However, it's crucial to grant yourself the freedom to feel the spectrum of emotions that comprises grief. Allow yourself to experience sadness, anger, and even moments of unexpected joy. Consider avenues such as journaling, meditation, or heartfelt conversations with a trusted friend or therapist as safe outlets to navigate and process these emotions.

2. Practice Boundary Setting

The holiday season often brings a flurry of social obligations, but it's important to prioritize your emotional well-being. During this time, setting boundaries can be your compass for self-preservation.

Communicate openly with family and friends, expressing your needs and limits. Whether it involves attending events for a shorter duration or opting out entirely, prioritize your needs and emotional well-being unapologetically.

3. Listen to Your Body and Take Care of Your Health

The holiday season often invites excess—be it in food or spirits. But be mindful that drowning your sorrows in spiked eggnog won't bring comfort when you're grieving. While these creature comforts may offer momentary escape from the weight of grief, they can be detrimental in the long run. Once the festive buzz wears off, the raw emotions may resurface with a renewed intensity, sometimes accompanied by guilt or regret.

Alcohol, in particular, rather than soothing the ache, can amplify the complexities of grief, making it essential to approach grief with mindfulness. Seeking comfort in healthier alternatives, such as embracing a balanced diet, maintaining an exercise routine, and swapping out overindulgence with activities you enjoy, can alleviate overwhelming emotions and contribute to a more sustainable and genuine sense of comfort during the holiday season.

4. Rely on Your Support System

It's natural to feel inclined towards isolation during challenging times, especially during the holiday season. While supports may be less available, see if you can surround yourself with understanding and supportive individuals and steal moments of connectivity with others. Reach out to close friends or family members who can provide the emotional support you require. Consider attending support groups or therapy sessions as additional avenues for healing and connection.

5. Include Your Loved One in an Old or New Tradition

The season's festivities remind us of happier times and the painful reality that they will never be the same again without the presence of our loved one. It's okay to acknowledge this. Whether you decide to continue a tradition once had with your loved one or embark on a mission to creating a new tradition, this can be a wonderful way to acknowledge loss, maintain memories, and utilize love to forge forward.

Rather than shying away from established holiday traditions, consider integrating memories of your loved one into both old and new rituals. You might light a candle in their honor during a holiday meal or share stories about them while decorating the tree.

At the same time, incorporating new traditions can serve as a powerful reminder that life continues to unfold, offering opportunities for new memories and meaningful experiences. For example, volunteering, perhaps in memory of your loved one, can be a beautiful way to lean into your grief, which elicit additional benefits along the way.

6. Permission, Permission, Permission

Permitting yourself becomes an empowering act during the holiday season. Whether it's permission to grieve, to set boundaries with family, or to establish new traditions, remember that your emotional journey is uniquely yours. Allow yourself to feel and do without constraints, and prioritize your mental and emotional well-being. Resist external pressures dictating how you should navigate these holidays; instead, embrace the autonomy to feel and shape your experience authentically.

Embrace Healing: Join Our Community at Authentically Living

As the holiday season approaches, remember it's okay to give yourself permission to feel your emotions and care for yourself during this time. While a difficult time, the holiday season offers opportunities to honor memories, try new things, and continue living.

At Authentically Living Psychological Services, you can join our grief process group and seek comfort in our community of fellow grievers.

Our community is a safe space to share, support, and navigate the complexities of grief together. Because, let's face it, life is messy, grief is messy, and sometimes we all need a little support. By sharing memories, shedding tears, and recognizing that you are not alone in your pain, you can feel a glimmer of comfort and openness towards the future. So, let's untangle the tinsel of grief together and discover strength and comfort in a community ready to support you even amid sorrow.

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Cynthia Shaw
Cynthia Shaw
23. Jan.
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05. Dez. 2023
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As someone who is grieving, this post is incredibly accurate. The holidays are the hardest time of year for me.

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