Navigating Grief During the Holiday Season: Coping with the Loss of a Loved One

Losing someone you love is never easy, but it takes on an extra dimension and poses challenges when it happens just before the holiday season. Facing this joyful time of year with fresh grief is complicated. It’s essential to find healthy ways of coping, from leaning on supportive friends and family to seeking professional mental health care.

The holidays can be a joyful time, but not for everyone. Many people experience new or worse mental health symptoms due to stress, expectations, relationship conflicts, financial burden, and other reasons.

One of the biggest challenges some people face this time of year is grief. Losing a loved one is never easy but facing the holidays without them presents added difficulties. Suppose you lost someone recently or are experiencing the first holiday season without them. In that case, you need social support, coping strategies, and maybe even professional support to get you through the holidays.

Grief and the Holidays

For many people, the holidays are a time to be with family. You may have time off from work to spend more time with the people you love most. You may be traveling to see family or have relatives come to visit you. This celebratory period is a time many cherish for this reason. There is more time and opportunity to be with those you love.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the holidays also makes it more difficult when you’ve lost a loved one. Grief doesn’t take time off, but you may feel its effects amplified during this time of year when you would typically be with that person.

Especially when grief is fresh or when facing the first season without your loved one, the cheer of the holidays can seem particularly offensive. While others celebrate, you may feel alone in your grief.

You aren’t alone, however. Especially after the losses caused by the coronavirus, millions of people will face the first holiday without someone they love. Just knowing that you are not the only one going through this may provide comfort.

How to Get Through the Holidays While Grieving

There is no one right way to face the holidays with grief. Find what works for you and your other loved ones. Do what feels right, what honors your lost family member, and whatever gets you through the season intact and ready to face a new year.

1. Be Patient With Yourself

While there are some patterns common to grief among all people, everyone is unique. Your path through grief is yours alone, and it may take more or less time than you expected to start to feel better. Be patient and allow yourself to handle all the emotions associated with the loss.

Feelings of grief are terrible. At times it can be unbearable, but recognize that this is part of the healing process. Rather than trying to escape these bad feelings, move through them so that you come out the other side in better mental health.

2. Change Your Traditions

The holiday season is full of traditions. All families and individuals have unique patterns, from when they decorate the tree to what they make for Christmas dinner or how they exchange gifts. When you’re missing a family member, these annual traditions are difficult to face. There will be a big hole where that person should be.

There’s no rule that says you have to stick with the same traditions year after year. If it’s too much to face those annual events with a fresh loss, change them. By doing something different, you allow your grieving mind a little bit of a break.

3. Set Boundaries With Others

Not only can you change traditions, but you are also allowed to choose your activities and interactions with others. Don’t be afraid to decline invitations to parties or events. If you can’t be around certain people right now, don’t.

Avoid letting other people’s expectations, pressure, or potential disappointment dictate your boundaries. Set them yourself based on your needs and well-being during this difficult time. Those who care about you will understand and won’t take it personally.

4. Give Back

Volunteering has many proven benefits. It increases positive social connections, provides meaning and fulfillment, and improves mental health. Time spent giving back can reduce depression, boost mood, reduce stress and anger, and increase self-confidence and self-esteem.

For grief, volunteer work can be a powerful coping mechanism. One reason is the benefits that volunteering confers to anyone. For grief, these benefits extend beyond the usual. It gives you a chance to distract your mind from grief and to place your focus on others instead of yourself. This isn’t a permanent fix, but helping others is an excellent way to feel better at the moment and to bring more purpose to the holidays.

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5. Connect With Others

Grieving can be a lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Your loved one had other family and friends, who may be missing them right now as much as you are. Reach out to these people and rely on each other for support. You may also want to join a support group for bereavement to listen to and share with others having a similar experience.

6. Celebrate Your Loved One

If you lost someone just before the holidays, your plans and expectations may shift in an instant. You probably planned to spend time with this person and engage in your usual holiday traditions. Without them, you may not know how to proceed.

Many people find it helpful to include their lost loved ones in some way. Honoring them during holiday events or celebrations helps keep their memory alive. Light a candle each night to reflect on your loved one. Keep a chair empty at holiday dinners and share memories before eating. Make your loved one’s favorite foods or keep the seasonal traditions they most enjoyed.

Knowing When to Get Professional Support

You don’t have to be in a desperate state to reach out for professional grief counseling or therapy. However, there are some critical signs to know that may indicate you need help:

  • Intense sadness, from which you can’t find any relief
  • Obsessive thoughts about your loved one and intense longing for them
  • Extreme focus either on reminders of your loved one or avoidance of reminders
  • Inability to accept the loss
  • Numbness or detachment from your life and others
  • Inability to enjoy life or find meaning or purpose
  • Difficulty functioning normally
  • Withdrawal and isolation from others

These are symptoms of complicated grief, a condition some people experience after a loss. It is a debilitating state that is not typical grief, and that can benefit from professional treatment. Normal grief may feel like this at times, but it should ease. If you find you can’t get relief or function as you once did, look for a therapist specializing in grief.

You may also benefit from residential treatment. Staying in a facility has important benefits for anyone struggling to adapt to life without a loved one. A treatment center can provide you with a team of professionals and treatment for all aspects of your mental health. Taking a break from the holidays to manage your wellness may be just what you need.

Facing the holidays while grieving is a terrible position to be in, but it is one that many people face. You’re not alone in this, but how you cope with the loss and the season is up to you. Make positive choices, reach out for help, and take care of your health and wellness for the best outcome.