Learning to manage the pain of grief during the holidays

Learning to manage the pain of grief during the holidays

The pain of grief from any significant loss tends to surface with great intensity during certain milestone events. Holidays present their own unique challenges, particularly for the newly bereaved. There are questions about how to celebrate the holidays after loss. Do I keep the same traditions or develop new ones? Do I tell my friends and family that things have changed; that I am not the same? What if I don’t have the emotional fortitude to deal with the holidays, how do I proceed? How do I best honor the memory of my deceased loved one? There is no specific formula for managing your grief during the holidays. Discover what works best for you and embrace it. 


Do understand that life has changed

The holidays can be stressful during the best of times. There is shopping to be done, dinners to be made, parties and family gatherings to attend. After the death of a loved one, these tasks and obligations become even more difficult to fulfill because the pain of grief is exhausting. Plus, the mere thought of the holidays without our loved one can often be overwhelming. In fact, you may not wish to celebrate the holidays at all. This is a normal reaction, particularly in early grief. 

Do express your concerns and fears to family and friends

Let your family and friends know where you are at with your grief, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Let them know that you have concerns about being able to meet the demands of the holidays without your loved ones. For example, if you typically prepared the holiday meal or meals, ask for help preparing it or ask someone else to assume that responsibility. 

Do give yourself a way out

It is not uncommon for individuals affected by death to suddenly change their minds on the day of a particular holiday gathering and not go because they are both physically and emotionally drained. If you decide at the last minute to not attend a holiday event, do not feel guilty. There is no guilt in honoring that inner voice that says: Take care of you. You can also ask family and friends to be flexible and empathetic.

Do honor the memories of your deceased loved ones

Keeping the memory of our loved ones alive can provide us with moments of joy and peace during the holiday season. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make a donation in their name to their favorite charity or charities
  • Share old pictures and tell stories
  • Volunteer at a local organization that had special significance for the deceased
  • Light a special candle
  • Listen to or play a piece of music that you and your loved one enjoyed

Whenever possible, family should be involved together in determining how their loved one should be remembered. 

Do identify coping skills that helped you deal with previous loss

The death of a loved one disempowers us and leaves us feeling helpless and confused in a world that has suddenly changed. If we can identify those strengths or coping skills that helped us work through previous losses, we again become empowered and confident in our ability to navigate the challenges presented by the holidays. 


Do not suppress your sadness or apologize for your tears

Trying to avoid or minimize feelings of anger, sadness or hurt can only intensify the holiday grief experience. Acknowledge your emotions by either expressing them to someone you trust, or write in your journal about them. Tears are ok and do not need to be rationalized or otherwise explained. Tears are cathartic and cleansing.

Do not rely on alcohol or other drugs

Using alcohol and other drugs temporarily dulls the pain of grief. Mixing alcohol with other prescribed or over the counter drugs that have a similar sedative effect may result in accidental overdose. Instead of going down the path of substance abuse, rely on non chemical stress reduction techniques such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and/or yoga. 

Do not miss an opportunity for additional support

If you are able, attend a workshop on grief and the holidays. Your local Hospice or funeral home would be two places to look. You will discover that you are not the only one experiencing the pain of holiday grief. Shared pain is a gateway to hope and healing.

Do not hesitate to say the name of your loved one during holiday gatherings

Others may have difficulty saying the name of your loved one because of fear of upsetting you. Understand that you may have to be the one to break the ice, if you so choose. Doing this will allow stories and joyful memories to be shared.

Do not ignore the need for self-care

Take some time out for yourself. Shut the lights off in your home and turn your cell phone off for a little while. Take a long soothing bath or treat yourself to a massage. Take time for yourself so that you can recharge your batteries and conserve energy to help adequately address the ongoing challenges of grief during the holidays.

Jumping cartoon

The holidays can intensify the already raw emotional pain resulting from the death of our loved ones. We can learn to manage the pain of holiday grief through support from others, understanding that life is different, and by allowing ourselves to be flexible. It is also crucial that we rely on our existing strengths to deal with loss and to make time for self-care. Above all, we must stay connected to our deceased loved ones during the holidays by honoring their memory.

More expert advice about Coping with Death and Grief

Photo Credits: A Row From Burning Candles And A Christmas Decor by Talulla via BigStock; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Dave RobertsLMSW,CASAC

I became a parent who experienced the death of a child, after my daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. I am a retired addiction professional and currently an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Utica College,...

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