Coping with the Holidays

By: Carla Tanguay
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Grief and the Holiday Season

The arrival of the holiday season means different things to different people: traditions, shopping, hustle and bustle, celebrations, and faith. To almost everyone, holidays mean spending time with family and with the people we love. For those who have lost a loved one, the holidays can magnify the pain they are trying to cope with and become a time of intense grief.

Coping with your first holiday season after a death may feel overwhelming. From details like who is going to carve the turkey, to the dread of waking up alone on Christmas morning, sometimes it feels like the holiday season was designed as a constant reminder that your loved one is gone. It is important to recognize the challenges that lie ahead and develop strategies for coping and for getting the support that you need.

When you have lost someone important to you, celebration is the last thing you feel ready to do. Pretending that the death didn’t happen, or that it isn’t a difficult time of year is not helpful. Expecting that other people feeling this loss will want to approach the holidays in the same way that you want to is futile. But you can and will find a way to get through the holiday season.

Helpful Strategies

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no right or wrong way to get through the holiday season. What is important is that you find a way to care for yourself and avoid unhealthy habits. The following strategies may be helpful in planning for the holiday season:

  • Find support. While your instinct may be to hide in bed and avoid other people until the holidays are over, being around other people who can support you and can share in your grief is particularly important this time of year. This may mean picking just one party or holiday service to attend and asking a friend to go with you. Or it may mean finding a support group of people who have experienced a similar loss. Although you may feel utterly alone, you are not alone in feeling grief this holiday season. There are others like you, and they may need you as much as you need them.
  • Find a way to formally remember your loved one. The absence of your loved one’s presence around the table or at an event may seem overwhelming. Instead of trying to ignore it, find a way to recognize it. Lighting a candle, setting an extra place at the table, or putting up pictures can all be ways to remember your loved one and recognize the loss. Many people find that creating a new tradition to honor their loved one is a meaningful way to incorporate the loss into the holiday season.
  • Reimagine traditions. Pretending that life will ever be the same after the loss of a loved one is hopeless. Some people find it is important to continue family traditions, while others find it too painful. Your family might decide to spend their next holiday on a beach in Hawaii, or to volunteer at a homeless shelter. It is okay to let go of old traditions and try something completely new. You can always go back to familiar traditions in future years if you want. 
  • Plan ahead. Whatever you decide to do this holiday season, give it some thought and planning. Avoid letting it sneak up on you. Be intentional about what you do and don’t want, and make sure that you communicate this with your friends and family. Because everyone grieves differently, you may have very different needs and expectations than those around you. It is important to find out these differences early so that you can make adjustments. It may be helpful to have a Plan A and a Plan B. For example, Plan A may be to go to the large gathering at your in-law’s house and celebrate in the traditional way your family always has, with a time set aside for remembrance. Plan B is to have your best friend over to your house to sit on the couch, light a fire, and listen to old records. Just knowing that there is a Plan B can take away some of the anxiety of the day.
  • Consider professional help. The holidays and anniversaries are often the most difficult time of the year for people who are grieving. If you find that you are not coping well, are abusing alcohol or drugs, are withdrawing from friends and family, or have thoughts of hurting yourself, it is time to speak to a counselor or healthcare professional.

It is normal to feel like you will never find joy in the holidays again. It is important to recognize that they will never be the same. But there are ways to find meaning in new traditions and to honor the memory of your loved one. Accept the feelings of loss and pain, and accept without guilt the moments of enjoyment.

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