November 2, 2021

Struggling with Holiday Grief? Here are 11 Ways to Cope.


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We all hoped this year’s holiday season would be different than last, and in some ways, it is.

However, for those grieving, the holidays are tough enough in any year. Adding to the stress of grief this year are the continued effects of the pandemic, vaccines, mandates, disagreements, masks (still), online meetings and gatherings, returning to work, school, traveling (or not), and navigating how much we can or want to socialize now, if at all.

For the past almost two years, there have been increasing amounts of stress, uncertainty, and change, including many deaths. These can make for an even more difficult holiday season this year, especially for those of us grieving.

Even though we may be getting out more, many continue to feel isolated and disconnected from support systems, which continues to be a great hardship for many, most certainly for those who have lost loved ones.

As the holidays approach, we want something that can feel comforting and supportive, even as there remain many unknowns.

Below are some suggestions to consider for this year’s holiday season if you are grieving or if you know someone who is grieving:

1. Holiday in a box

If you aren’t getting together with loved ones consider putting together a “holiday in a box” for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Chanukah or Kwanza or Solstice. It’s like a care package. Include games, puzzles, poems, books, pictures, sweets, and other things you may have shared if you were together.

2. Informal meals

If you choose to be alone this holiday (which is perfectly fine) or with just a few others, opt for a pre-prepared meal. Many restaurants and grocery stores have food for the holidays. It reduces stress in prep and cleanup. Or have your meal delivered. So many stores and restaurants are delivering and offering many yummy options for the holidays.

3. Forgo the “shoulds” and listen to you

Holidays are often driven by traditions, which are not necessarily bad. However, if you don’t feel like putting up decorations, or making certain foods, there is no obligation to do so. Other family members may be challenged by this and want the traditions to be the same. If so, let them take the lead, and you can choose if and how much you want to participate. The only obligation you have is to yourself. Do what you want to do this year.

However, if you want to have a smaller scale (or larger scale) decorated home this year, that’s fine. If you want to sit in your pj’s all day, great. If you need to be outside near trees or water or flowers or mountains, then go. Check in with yourself and your needs. They may even change from day-to-day. Honoring what you want and need is key to the grief process.

4. Create a new tradition or ritual

Some people find comfort by honoring traditions, while others find them unbearably painful (see #3). Discuss with your family the activities you want to include or exclude this year. Some examples of new rituals and traditions may include:

>> Announce beforehand that someone different will carve the turkey.

>> Create a memory box. Fill it with photos of your loved one or memory notes from family members and friends. Ask young children to contribute drawings in the memory box.

>> Make a decorative quilt using favorite colors, symbols, images, or pieces of clothing/fabric that remind you of the person who died.

>> Light a candle in honor of your loved one.

>> Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.

>> Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site.

>> Have a moment of silence during a holiday toast to honor your loved one.

>> Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.

>> Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one.

>> Write a poem about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.

>> Play your loved one’s favorite music or favorite game.

>> Plan a meal with your loved ones’ favorite foods

5. Allow yourself to feel…everything

There is no right or wrong way to experience grief. Feeling sad is natural, so is joy and happiness. Laughing and feeling joy during the holidays while you are grieving does not mean you have forgotten your loved one, or are somehow betraying them. Grieving means you have loved someone. Feeling joy means you are living for yourself and for them.

6. Conserve your energy

The holidays encourage us to extend ourselves beyond our means—our financial means and energy means. What can you do with the energy, time, and resources you have? Gifts are not the purpose of the holidays. Connection is. If you don’t have the energy and time, ask yourself what matters to you and how can you do what matters with what you have?

7. Allow yourself to change your mind

Even if you want to do something with others, it’s okay to change your mind even at the last minute. It is helpful to prepare others for this too. Tell them, “I need to warn you that I may need to change my mind, depending on how I feel.” People who know you and know your situation will understand. This also applies to events you may sign up for online. When you register for an event, check the refund policies.

8. Sit this one out

Some say being around people is good when you are grieving, and it is. However, some folks just don’t want to be a part of anything related to the holidays at all this year. This is just fine. People close to you may feel this is not a good thing, but you have to decide what is right for you. Sitting out this holiday doesn’t mean you will never celebrate again. It just means for right now, you need to be with you, figure out what you want, watch or listen to what you want, eat the food you want, cry when you need, sleep when you need, talk to who you want to (or not). You are the boss of you. (See #3-7).

9. Celebrate when you can

For some, celebrating on the day of the holiday is not possible or even desired. Some folks gather (even virtually) before the holiday or after it. Some celebrate the holidays in the summer when everyone can make it. It’s too late for that this year, but maybe next year. Getting together in the spring or summer will allow for an even sweeter celebration.

10. Pulling inward

As we go into the darkest time of the year, our natural inclination is to hibernate. For those who are grieving, this can feel like an even greater appeal. With the holidays being different than they ever were, it seems we have an even better reason to pull inward. We can shift our focus from outside ourselves to within ourselves, from “doing” to “being,” being with ourselves, being with others (even virtually), and being with what is, right now.

11. Being in the present is a powerful gift

Since the beginning of 2020, we experienced how everything can change day-to-day. Being present for the experiences in your life right now will support you in your grief and be a true gift to yourself. Being present to how you feel can help you to make choices about what you want, and how you want your life to be.

It is natural to worry about things that are out of our control (and there are lots). However, doing so expends energy that could otherwise be used for what you can control. Being present to life now allows you to ask, “What is in my control now?” When we focus on what is out of our control, we find fewer choices and feel more helpless. When we discover what is in our control, we find we do have more choices, and more gifts to share with ourselves and others.

If you need additional assistance as you are grieving during this time, there are many folks who can help and support you. Local hospice organizations often have resources, especially during the holidays. There are many websites that offer written, video, and even live/Zoom events with information and support. If you find yourself struggling and need immediate assistance, call 911 or your local emergency mental health services for support.


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