Grief during the holiday season

When we think of the holidays, most of us think of happy moments spent with loved ones. But although the holiday season is meant to filled with good cheer, that’s not necessarily the reality for everyone. 

For people who are grieving, the holiday season is often anything but merry. In fact, for many, it’s one of the most challenging times to cope with grief and loss. Death can cast a dark shadow upon the holidays, leaving many feeling lonely and isolated during a time that is supposed to be joyful.

Why does grief feel worse during the holidays?

The holidays magnify the effects of grief—but why? 

For those who are grieving, the heightened expectations at this time of year can be overwhelming. During the holiday season, songs, movies, greeting cards, and even ads tell us that we ought to be happy and enjoy the festivities. But in the depths of grief, you likely don’t feel like celebrating—and you don’t feel happy. This dissonance can amplify already existing distress and loneliness.

The season is also teeming with reminders of missing loved ones. Just the sight of the lights and decorations brings back memories of happier times, and so many holiday traditions become reminders of loss—sending cards with a name missing from them, leaving a person off your gift list, laying out one less place setting at the holiday table. As if those moments aren’t overwhelming enough, there are also holiday parties you may not feel up to attending, and questions about your plans with loved ones that are tough to answer.

And of course, the holidays bring added pressures that can exacerbate grief. Travel and financial burdens. Seasonal depression caused by shorter days and darker evenings. Stress from organizing gatherings or visiting family. Put together, it’s a recipe for trouble.

What can people who are grieving do to cope during the holidays?

In truth, there is no right or wrong way to cope during the holiday season. If you’ve lost someone close to you, the last weeks of December will likely always be clouded by grief, no matter how many years go by. Really, the holidays are just about surviving however you can.

That said, some small changes can make the holiday season a little easier. The right preparation can help you navigate the festivities and maybe even find some peace.

One of the best things you can do for your emotional and mental well-being? Be ready to say no. Although it’s not easy, don’t be afraid to refuse any holiday invitation you receive, whether for a company party, a family dinner, or a New Year’s Eve celebration. Gatherings can be comforting when you’re grieving, but they can also be exhausting and overwhelming. If you don’t feel up to attending a get-together, it’s completely fine to decline the invitation.

When you do attend holiday events, identify coping strategies to make them more manageable. Challenge yourself to remain present in the moment and enjoy small pleasures—the twinkling lights, the rich decorations, the flavors of your favorite holiday treats. Take breaks when you need them, and don’t be afraid to map out quiet time for yourself amidst your busy schedule. Keep your visits brief and leave at a predetermined time. Be aware of your alcohol consumption and make sure you get enough sleep.

Most importantly, ask for support when you need it. Tell someone close to you that you’re worried about coping with grief during the holidays and you might need help getting through some of the tougher moments. Reaching out to your support network removes some of the burden from your shoulders and ensures you’re not alone in your grief.

How can we support grieving loved ones during the holiday season?

If you know someone who is grieving during the holidays, you can make it just a little easier by offering your support.

The most significant way you can help? Simply be aware of what they’re going through and understand what they might be feeling (reading this article is a great first step). Then, as the holidays approach, make sure they know that you’re thinking about them, and you’re happy to support them however you can.

You know your friends and loved ones best. If they aren’t able to tell you what they need, you can attempt to anticipate what would help most. Some people might not be up to cooking, so offering a warm meal might be a meaningful gesture. Others might simply need someone to stick by their side during a holiday event—or give them an excuse to leave early! You can even offer alternative plans, like a night in watching non-holiday-related movies. 

Many people who are grieving during the holidays may also appreciate an opportunity to honor the person who died. Rather than avoid the topic, find ways to incorporate their memory into celebrations, perhaps by practicing an old holiday tradition, or creating a new one in their memory. 

The holidays are anything but easy for people who have lost someone they love. It’s not always possible to escape grief during this season, but with the right support, you can find ways to cope. One of the most meaningful gestures you can make at this time of year is to reach out to people in your life and lend a hand. You never know how your outreach could make a difference for someone who is healing from loss

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