Coping with Grief and Loss During Holidays and Family Celebrations

For anyone dealing with an illness, grief, or the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be a time of sadness, pain, anger, or dread. It can be difficult to cope, especially when you see the sights and sounds of holiday happiness all around you. Because the phases of grief: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance, are not linear, people can often get stuck in a phase.  A common reaction, anger, is one example where people can get stuck.  Anger comes out in various forms and can be misdirected, be a cover for anxiety and fear, and result in what can appear to be hurtful behaviors to others. During holidays such as the High Holidays, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s, grief can become overwhelming with waves of memories and this grief can also magnify the stress that is often already a part of the holidays.

How can you begin to fill the emptiness you feel when it seems that everyone else is overflowing with joy? How do you get “unstuck”?  There are a few strategies, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter, that you can employ to help you get through this time.

Start a New Tradition

During a holiday dinner, place a lighted candle on the dinner table, leave an empty chair, or say a few words of remembrance.

Change the Celebration

Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal at home. Or schedule a trip with friends.

Express Your Needs

People who are grieving may find it hard to participate in all the festivities or may need to let go of unsatisfying traditions. It’s all right to tell people you just aren’t up to it right now or to change plans at the last minute. I remember that my sister did not join in singing carols, the holidays after our father died.

Help Someone Else

It may also help to volunteer through a charitable or religious organization. Make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the person who died.  In retrospect, I wish I had done this during that sad holiday.

Give Yourself Time

The grieving process doesn’t neatly conclude at the six-month or one-year mark. Depending on the strength of the bond that was broken, grief can be life-long. Nevertheless, grief does usually soften and change over time. With time, the holidays will become easier to handle.

The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate holidays after the death of a loved one, and that the best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, get support from others and take it easy.