Grief and Loss during the Holidays: Navigating the Challenges

by Samantha Lane, LSW

This time of the year is always difficult for those who have lost loved ones, but it may be particularly so this year. Not only for those of us experiencing grief over the death of a loved one, but also as we all grapple with the losses that 2020 has brought: of our identity, of our sense of safety, of social interaction, and of support systems. Here are some strategies to help you navigate the potential challenges of the holiday season:

1.Do something to honor your loved ones

The holidays are a great time to reminisce and honor those who are no longer with us. Talk about and share stories about your loved one. Cook a favorite holiday dish or make your loved one’s favorite type of cookie. Create a memorial ornament or wreath to hang every year to honor them. Light a candle in remembrance. They are still a part of your life, even if they are not physically present.

2. Set healthy boundaries

This is a time for self-compassion and honoring your needs. If you find the normal holiday celebrations to be too draining or overwhelming, listen to that. But don’t let that be a reason to pull away from loved ones. Make the time for those you care about in ways that are less overwhelming for you right now. If a big holiday gathering is too much (or is unsafe), have a smaller and more intimate gathering with just immediate family. If you cannot imagine cooking a large meal this year, let others take over or help. If you dread having to rehash your loss with multiple people you haven’t seen in a while, employ the help of another loved one to run interference for you. If you don’t want to decorate for the holidays this year, don’t.

3. Create new traditions

With all of the changes this year has brought, it may be easier than ever to change up your traditions, particularly if some of the traditions you did with your loved one feel too painful at this time. Start a new tradition that you’ve never done before. Cook holiday dishes from other parts of the world. Watch a holiday movie you’ve never seen. Research traditions from different time periods. Change is a part of life, and starting a new tradition can be a reminder that change isn’t always negative.

4. Send holiday cards

Although many of us are not able to meet up in person this year, there are still ways to remain connected. Take your time sending cards to friends and family. Use it as a relaxing ritual. This may be a good time to reach out and reconnect with people you have drifted away from during your grief. Sometimes it can be easier to write down the things we wish we could say out loud.

5. Feel your feelings without guilt

No matter how much we may want our painful feelings to go away, your feelings are valid. They are a part of our lives, and our feelings help our brains process what we are going through. Accept your feelings instead of fighting them, as that can be exhausting day in and day out. Allow yourself to feel without guilt, shame, or negative self-talk. When you feel yourself getting swept up in high emotions or wanting to push them aside, plant your feet, feel your body supporting you, and take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel the sensations these emotions are bringing up in your body, and ride them the way you would a wave. It may even be helpful to “greet” your emotions, as if they were characters in your head (picture the characters in Disney’s Inside Out, for example). As the emotions arise, acknowledge their presence: “Hello today, Sadness.” “Hi, Fear.” Accept them as a part of your experience, and you may find they have less of a hold on you.

6. Be patient with the process

Grief is a process that is never finished; it simply changes over time. It cannot be rushed, and there is no proper order of events in grief. Be compassionate with yourself. It is a natural process and everyone goes through it differently. Other people may be coping with the loss of the same person differently than you, and that’s ok. Each grief experience will be unique to the person grieving and their relationship with the person who has passed. If you feel you would like additional support during this time, reach out to a licensed mental health professional or grief support group.

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