Grief & the Holiday Season

Ahh the holiday season.  It’s “the most joyous time of year” but a lot of us no longer feel the joy we once did at this time of year. Chances are you or someone in your life are anticipating the holiday season with feelings of unease. But there’s hope! I’ve got some tools & strategies you can use to make it through.

There’s a lot of reasons this time of year can be a challenge. Perhaps you fit into one or more of the following scenarios..

  1. You’ve experienced a loss around the holiday season and think of it every year at this time

  2. You are recounting the year that is wrapping up and considering the losses you have experienced this year

  3. Circumstances of loss have changed or eliminated the holiday traditions you have known and loved through the years

Let’s first define what grief is.

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.

Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.

You heard me right. It’s natural, it’s normal, and it doesn’t just relate to death. Other losses that can cause grief include (but are not limited to) divorce, health issues, retirement, loss of a sense of safety, loss of a home, loss of a career.

Grief creates conflict within us. Sometimes we don’t know how to feel about it. Other times we feel one way one minute and another the next. Or we can feel completely numb altogether. All of the above are normal and natural reactions.

Here are some common beliefs regarding grief that are not helpful ever (including around the holidays):

You should grieve alone

The idea that people should grieve alone is counter-productive. The holidays are a time that we often gather with family, but when grieving we tend to isolate and shut others out.  When we do this we miss opportunity to share the good memories, the funny stories.  We also miss the chance to support our loved ones who are also grieving.

It just takes time

I bet you can picture this scenario.  A family member addresses the sadness they see in another family member by saying, “They’re still grieving”.  They probably whispered it and they probably think they are being compassionate and loving.  What that person is actually doing is inferring that grief is time-bound and that the person who is grieving should be through this process.  It also includes slight judgement of the person who is grieving.  Any belief that grief lessens with time alone is incorrect. If your leg broke you would not expect the bone to heal with time. You would take action of being seen by a medical professional.  Grief is processed by taking action and addressing the feelings attached to the loss.

Be strong for others

We’re trained to be strong for others.  What this does is encourage us to put on our courage pants, minimize our emotions, and fake that everything’s okay.  Take note of when you or someone else says “I’m fine.” First off, what that actually means is “I’m not okay”.

Being resilient is honorable in our culture. We all somewhat want to be praised on how strongly we can handle life’s obstacles. Be conscious of this.  If you catch yourself saying “I need to be strong for others” I hope you hear me in your ear say “No you don’t, you should be authentic with your feelings so you can process them.”

How you can support a loved one who is grieving this holiday season:

  1. Say nothing. Offer a hug and don’t let go until the person you are hugging lets go.

  2. Just listen. If you don’t know the full story of the loss, ask the person who is grieving what happened.  Most people who are grieving deeply desire to just be heard.

  3. Don’t say “I know how you feel”. You don’t know how they feel.  Just because my father died doesn’t mean I have any idea what another person who has lost their father is going through. One step further, even if that persons father also had pancreatic cancer, our two situations are not comparable. 

  4. Offer a helping hand with something practical.  That closet lightbulb that’s burnt out is much more of a burden to replace for the person who is grieving than it likely is for you.  

  5. Bring them a home cooked meal.  This is a timeless tradition that we must hold onto!! Home cooked meals are a great way to show your love.  Grief can hugely impact appetite and eating habits, whether that be an increased appetite or a diminished ability to eat.  Nutrients and nourishment go a far way and are an excellent way to show your love.

  6. Call them. Call with no expectation of them answering.  If they do not answer, leave a message saying you were thinking of them and then call again in a few days.  

  7. Try to avoid “How are you?”.  When my dad died that was one of the hardest questions for me to answer.  You can simply say “I was thinking of you and wanted to call and check on you.”  You can check how someone is doing without directly asking.

What I’m going to suggest lastly may be hard for you to picture doing. It pushes back on isolation and it may be uncomfortable. Lean into and onto others this holiday season.  You are not alone.  If you don’t have trusted loved ones to lean into or onto you can depend on me to be willing to go there with you.  I am here for you as a resource and available throughout the holiday season. 

If you or your loved one are ready to look deeper at your losses, consider joining me for my next Grief Recovery Support Group or us working together one-on-one.  I would be honored to guide you through the process of healing from your loss.