Coping with grief during the holiday season

Caring for communities

Losing a loved one is never easy, especially when it comes to the first holiday season without them. A season that is typically full of joy, traditions and memories may bring about extra feelings of grief and loneliness.

If you feel lost on how to navigate this time of the year without your loved one, there are a few things you can keep in mind that may help you cope with grief during the holiday season.

Limit comparisons

Heartfelt movies, sweet holiday cards and smiling family photos seem to be everywhere during the holiday season. Oftentimes, you may find yourself grappling with the fact that your holiday season doesn’t look “perfect” or doesn’t compare to the happiness you might be seeing others display on social media.

The reality is that 3 in 4 Americans are stressed or concerned about some aspect of the holiday season, according to Verywell Mind. Next time you catch yourself comparing your experience to someone else’s, remember that the holidays are stressful for most people despite what you see as an outsider.

Try shifting your mindset of longing for something you don’t have to practicing gratitude for what you currently have.

Give yourself permission to feel grief during the holiday season

Just because the holidays are depicted as a happy season doesn’t mean that feeling down and lonely is wrong. In order to heal, you have to give yourself the permission to grieve and feel your loss. When it gets hard, you can always remind yourself that grief is part of the healing process.

From there, be realistic about what you can and can’t handle. If it feels uncomfortable to be in your home, try going to a friend or family’s home for a bit. If you can’t handle the responsibility of the holiday dinner or celebration, ask others to help pitch in. And if you just can’t bring yourself to celebrate this year, know that it is okay.

There are many people grieving their loved one’s death this year, whether it was expected or unexpected.

Talk about your grief

After giving yourself the permission to feel your own grief, it is important to speak about that grief with someone else. Family members, friends or turning to professionals is a great way to lessen the burden you are carrying. It might be comforting to remind yourself that grief is a universal feeling. Although some people may not experience it the same way, everyone goes through it at some point in their lives.

According to a recent poll, 89% of Americans think grief should be more widely discussed and addressed as a mental health issue. Yet only 30% of Americans have the skills they think they need to conquer such an important topic. If you don’t know where to start, simply opening up to someone close to you may help you feel better.

Be flexible

Holidays are typically rooted in traditions. Your family may always do a gift exchange at your cousin’s house or decorate the tree at grandma’s on the first day of December; but it is important to recognize that as life changes, traditions may need to change as well.

It is possible to create new traditions while also honoring the memories of the old ones. Instead of sticking to a tradition that feels out of place this year, try getting creative and doing something out of the ordinary. You could try delivering cookies to your neighbors or volunteering at your local food pantry.

There are many ways you can honor the memories of your loved one as well, such as lighting a candle every night or eating your loved one’s favorite meal. It may also feel right to you to purchase a piece of memorandum in their honor or pass down one of their treasures to another family member. Whatever way you can bring positive memories of your loved one to your gatherings may help you get through their absence and cope with your grief during the holiday season.

Prioritize self-care

It can feel hard to take care of yourself when you are upset and grieving. But grief can take a large toll on you. It’s important to pay attention to your mental, emotional and spiritual health so that you can take care of yourself during the holidays.

Some low-effort ways you can practice self-care are:

  • Taking a walk to clear your mind and get some sunshine.
  • Expressing your feelings creatively through journaling, drawing or painting.
  • Eating extra fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Breathing deeply, meditating or practicing mindfulness.
  • Spending time with family or friends in-person or connecting over the phone.
  • Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Ensuring you are practicing good hygiene habits such as brushing your teeth and showering.
  • Making time for laughter and joy via funny movies or books.

Make a plan

Planning has the tendency to help avoid the heavy emotions of overwhelm and dread. If you know what you plan to do, it makes things easier to accomplish. Include family members in your planning process so they can be involved and share what they may like or need as well.

Don’t feel like you have to stick exactly to your plan though. Things change and you may experience different emotions when you least expect them. Some experts recommend going into the holiday season with a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A could be conducting your traditions as usual, and your Plan B is your escape route where you can do activities that feel more in line with your current mood.

Whatever you choose this holiday season – whether that’s celebrating as usual or cancelling all plans and setting aside time for just grieving – just know that you have the power to do whatever feels best for you. No one can tell you how to feel.

However, it is also okay to give yourself permission to grieve and celebrate the same time. Grief and joy can coexist.

Getting professional help for your grief

Despite your best efforts to cope with your grief during the holiday season, you may still find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious, unable to sleep, irritable or hopeless. If these feelings last for a while and begin to impact your daily activities, schedule time to talk to your physician or a mental health professional.

Grief recovery and grief support groups are available in many communities and accessible through a quick online search. For more information on the grief process and additional resources, you can visit this comprehensive grief support list.

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