For the most part, the Holidays are a time of joy. We have the opportunity to surround ourselves with those we cherish, stuff ourselves with delicious food, and celebrate the year gone by.
But for many of us, the Holidays can represent a time of immense grief, as we remember those we lost and reflect back on what once was. This could hold true even if our loss occurred years ago, as old wounds re-open to once again expose raw emotions.
If you find yourself in this situation, how can you healthily navigate this annual maze of grief, while avoiding being pulled under by a strong current of negative emotions?
We talked with several grief experts to gain some insight into effective methods of coping with—and perhaps even overcoming—your Holiday-induced grief, which we’ll cover here.
But first, let’s discuss what grief is, as well as some of its common causes.
What Is Grief? What Causes It? How Is It Expressed?
Grief is both a simple and an unimaginably complex topic. Why?
It’s simple because we’ve all experienced grief at some point in our life, whether moving away from home, losing a job, getting a divorce, or dealing with the death of a loved one. In a very tangible way, we all know what grief feels like.
But this is also what makes it so complex. As Allen Frances, a professor emeritus at Duke University, notes, “Grief is complicated and elusive — one size definitely does not fit all.”
“Grief is complicated and elusive — one size definitely does not fit all.”
For example, how intensely we react to grief and how we deal with the accompanying wave of emotion is highly personal process, impacted by internal influences (how close someone was to us, any unresolved issues we had with them) and external ones (the culture to which we belong, the circumstances surrounding their death, etc.).
Even the definition of grief can differ depending on where you look, although most seem to agree that it involves the normal process of reacting to a loss. Common emotions related to this process include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, despair, anguish, and intense sorrow.
These emotions can also lead to physical symptoms like sleeping problems, changes in appetite, frequent mood swings, and even illness. Some of us may experience these emotions as mere distractions, while others might find them completely immobilizing.
As the medical community learns more about the grieving process, they’re beginning to understand that not even Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous 5 stages of grief can satisfactorily predict what some of us will—and will not—experience when faced with personal loss and the accompanying grief.
Despite the vagueness of grief, the reality is that there are several tried-and-true methods you can implement to adequately manage the process.
Before getting to that, though, let’s quickly discuss unhealthy ways of reacting to grief.
How Not to Deal With Your Holiday Grief
Although grieving can be messy, complicated, and riddled with intense emotions, the American Psychological Association notes that it’s important to face the process head-on.
The APA notes that there’s not any one right way to grieve—some people may never exhibit outward signs that they’re grieving—although there are wrong ways that can prevent us from adequately processing our grief and integrating the loss into our life, leading to problems like long-term depression.
To this point, Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based individual, couples, and family psychologist, recommends that you shouldn’t deny or ignore the loss that’s causing your grief. Doing so can actually increase the intensity and uncomfortableness of these negative emotions.
Additionally, don’t set a time limit on how long you’ll grieve. It’s a gradual process that will take as long as it takes. For some, this might only be a couple of months, while for others, the process might take a year or more.
And while grief can act as an impetus to examine our life and perhaps change direction, sudden, radical changes (e.g. selling a home, quitting a job, etc.) should be avoided until we’ve had adequate time to process the situation.
Finally, in order to find reprieve from the emotions brought about by grief, individuals might have a greater tendency to fall back on destructive habits like alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, and excessive spending.
What can you do instead?
Five Professional Methods for Healthy Holiday Grieving
1. Allow Yourself Adequate Time to Grieve
Josh Klapow, a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and host of "The Web" radio show notes that you don’t want to overwhelm or over-commit while grieving.
Instead, give yourself permission to take it slow, one step at a time. “Accept that this might be a difficult time for you. Be prepared for rushes of emotions that may occur. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.”
If you’re fearful of breaking down in a public place, Josh recommends “scheduling your breakdown” before you go out by putting on a favorite song or looking at photos of the deceased.
Then, “let the tears fall where they may. Indulge your grief; this is your gift to yourself. When emotions are temporarily depleted, it makes it easier to take on the day.”
Similarly, Mary Fristad, a mood disorder and mental health specialist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, recommends scheduling down time to allow yourself to relax, pray, meditate, or even laugh.
After all, she notes that “If you don’t laugh about it, you might cry or shout!” And that’s just fine, too.
2. Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Mary also tells us that it’s important to reframe your expectations during this time. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, since grief can be a big drain on energy (and even money).
Similarly, Josh notes that you’ll need to recognize that this Holiday season might not be the same as in the past, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment, which can negatively impact your ability to healthily handle your grief.
Josh emphasizes that there’s no right way to do this, but modifying traditions or making new ones, if it feels appropriate, might be one of many useful tools.
3. Create New Rituals & Traditions, or Fall Back on Old Ones
When it comes to new or updated traditions, what can you do?
Mary Fristad outlines that, instead of envisioning a storybook version of the holidays, celebrate the person you lost by lighting a candle near their picture, “writing a letter to the loved one, or gathering family and friends together to share special memories of that person.”
Yvonne Thomas also recommends taking some time alone, as well as with family and friends, to remember and reminisce about the loved one who has passed, which can help you honor their importance and remain connected to them.
“Look at old holiday videos or photos and let yourself remember the good times with your loved one and recognize how special and fortunate you were to have these priceless times together. As I always tell my clients, your loved one may be gone physically, but you can always keep them and these special memories in your head and heart.”
Gail Trauco, a Registered Nurse and Licensed Grief Mediator, tells us that the holidays are a great time to minimize stress and other pressures by beginning a new tradition, such as volunteering or spending time in nature.
Just getting in the habit of smiling when you greet people—even strangers—can be contagious and can help you heal.
You might also want to take advantage of any opportunities where you can be supported by people, such as participating in holiday gatherings at the office, church, with friends, or even in your neighborhood’s community center.
Josh Klapow voices a similar recommendation: “If your faith is important, joining others in a communal act of worship can be comforting. Fill your spiritual need by associating with people who understand and respect your desire to pray and talk about common beliefs.”
4. Don’t Do It Alone
Josh also tells us that you’ll need to be careful to avoid isolating yourself while processing your grief. Instead, accept a few invitations to spend time with close family or friends—just be sure to take it slow, as mentioned earlier.
Choose the invitations that sound most appealing and decline those that feel more like an obligation. Josh emphasizes that it’s important to get out, but only on your terms.
Yvonne Thomas takes this recommendation one step further by saying, “If you are still feeling too much loneliness and grief in spite of doing these things, talking to a psychologist who specializes in loss could be very helpful.”
5. Take Care of Yourself
Last, but certainly not least, all of the professionals we spoke with emphasized the importance of taking good care of yourself during the grieving process.
Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, notes that you need “serious self-care” in order to work your way toward happiness. “This includes what you eat drink, think, how much you move your body, and how much you rest.”
According to Yvonne Thomas, though, it’s easy to overlook, since grief can cause you to be unmotivated or apathetic. Specifically, she recommends overcoming this by:
- Eating proper amounts of food throughout the day
- Getting enough sleep
- Allowing your friends and family to be there for you
- Exercising at least 30 minutes per day
- Including laughter and humor as part of your day, which can help bring some joy back into your life
Sameet Kumar, Ph.D., author of Grieving Mindfully, also recommends organizing and prioritizing any work that needs to be done into manageable, bite-sized chunks. This way, you can get a boost when you check something off your list.
He also notes that 20–30 minutes of mindful meditation can help bring moments of peace to your day, and can even “alter how your brain processes stress after about eight weeks.”
But what if you’re a caregiver for someone who has yet to pass—or even for someone who’s undergoing the grieving process?
Rick Lauber, the author of The Successful Caregiver's Guide, advises that you’ll need to remember yourself during the holidays (and the rest of the year, for that matter).
Be mindful to take personal breaks to escape the mounting stress of the holiday season; even something as simple as “going for walks, pursuing a hobby, taking a class, or curling up with someone special to watch a movie on television with
a cup of hot chocolate.”
Basically, Rick tells us that anything that can help you relax and recharge can work wonders.
To this extent, Gail Trauco notes that the simple things can often have a big impact, such as keeping fresh flowers around the house, listening to or playing music, lighting candles, or snuggling with your pet.
When It Comes to Grief, Where Can You Go From Here?
As mentioned earlier, dealing with grief is a personal process—whether during the holidays or any other time of year—and it’s certainly not step-by-step.
There’s also no time limit on when you’ll feel “normal” again, and not everyone will experience the same emotions.
But based on what we learned from the five professionals above, you now have a solid direction in which to move to process your grief in a healthy manner and to put you on a path toward healing. Just be sure that you don’t undertake the journey alone, by reaching out to friends, family, and health professionals in your area.
Before you go: Do you have any healthy recommendations for dealing with holiday grief? Share your insights by leaving a comment below!