Coping with Loss During the Holidays

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | December 21, 2015

The holiday season is typically a time of great anticipation and excitement. But, for those of us who have experienced a loss, this time of year can be a very difficult. Memories of good times and togetherness around this time of year serve to remind us of our loss. Watching others who are feeling thankful and are celebrating when we feel overwhelmed, lonely or sad can be very painful. The holidays can highlight how much our lives have been changed by the loss of our loved one.

Feelings of worsened sorrow and sadness are typical around the holidays, and can even be a healthy expression of grief. It is okay to accept the difficulty of this time of year and acknowledge the loss. Below are a few guidelines to help you navigate through the difficult emotions and cope with the holiday season.

Tips for Coping with Grief during the Holidays:

Set realistic expectations for yourself

Following a loss, our lives are turned upside-down. Needless to say, the holidays are going to be different this year compared to year’s past. Rather than trying to get back to what “normal” used to be, work on accepting the reality of the situation. During this time of great pain, it is alright do things differently. To reduce needless stress, consider doing less and take others up on their offers to cook, shop, decorate, etc. You may try enjoying smaller gatherings with close friends and family rather than get-togethers with a large group of people.

Surround yourself with people who love and support you

Share your plans with close family and friends and invite them to be a part of a celebration that feels right to you. Sometimes sharing memories can be a source of comfort. If you feel ready, try sharing your memories with others of holidays spent with your loved one or tell stories and look at photo albums.

Try to avoid “canceling” the holiday despite the temptation

When we are feeling especially low it is tempting to want to avoid the holidays altogether. Although it is okay to avoid some circumstances that you don’t feel ready to handle, it is important to resist the urge to isolate yourself. Allow yourself some time for solitude, remembering and grieving, but balance it with planned activities with close family and friends.

Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, anger – allow yourself to grieve

The prescription for grieve is to grieve. Thus, and important aspect of the grieving process is to allow yourself permission to feel whatever emotion is coming up for you. Remember that everyone grieves differently, and there is no one “right way” to grieve. Thus, every family member may have his or her own unique grief experience and different needs related to celebrating the holidays. Remember, experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.

Draw comfort from doing for others

Giving to others is a very effective way to uncover feelings of joy during times of great sadness. Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of you loved one. Invite a guest who might otherwise be alone for the holidays. Adopt a needy family during the holiday season.

Take care of yourself

During this time of year it is especially important to practice good self-care. At the beginning, simply focus on the basics” eating, sleeping, and exercise. Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate your mood and turn instead to exercise, bubble baths, or meditation. Writing in a journal can also be a good outlet for your grief, or finding another creative outlet to express yourself.

Create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your current situation

Some find comfort in continuing to practice old traditions. Others may find them unbearably painful. Discuss with your family the activities you want to include or try differently this year.

Honor your loved one

For example, you might try lighting a candle in honor of the absent loved one, place a bouquet of flowers on the holiday table in honor of the person who died, have a moment of silence, place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree, write a poem and recite it during dinner, or play your loved one’s favorite music or game.

One of the most important things is to be gentle and understanding with yourself during this holiday season. Know that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season 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. If you find yourself having a difficult time functioning at home or at work due to difficult emotions that arise consider joining a support group or seeking individual therapy to help you develop coping strategies. Meeting with a therapist can help you understand your emotions and learn to deal with them better, so you can get back to feeling more like you again – and enjoying this special time of year.

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