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Grief and the holidays

Mental Health | November 24, 2020
Sad young girl hugging her mom during the holidays
Here are thoughts on how to help yourself or others who are grieving the loss of a loved one during the holidays.

Losing a loved one to death is overwhelming.  But facing holiday celebrations without your loved one can make things that much tougher.

"During the holiday season, it can be difficult to escape those 'Hallmark' commercials and television shows showing happy families gathering together to celebrate the season," says Colleen Storey, supervisor of outreach at PeaceHealth Hospice & Hope Bereavement Services, in Vancouver, Washington. 

"We know how difficult the holiday season can be on those who have lost loved ones," she says. "You may experience a variety of feelings and emotions. It’s normal to feel tired and sad. You may find it difficult to get motivated or have difficulty making the simplest of decisions. Expecting and then accepting things to be different without a loved one is one way to help lessen the pain of loss and change."

Here are some things you can do for yourself or others struggling to carry on in the midst of grief.

Accept that holidays will be different

The death of a loved one causes unexpected changes physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and socially. Holidays remind you of memories of past celebrations. It is normal to experience sadness and loneliness, rather than the happiness that is expected when celebrating holidays.

  • Take time to examine your thoughts and feelings regarding the holidays. Consider what is right for you and not what others expect of you.
  • Surround yourself with supportive, caring people. Of course, with COVID-19, that should be done by phone or social media messaging apps.
  • Talk with your family/friends about what they are thinking and feeling. What will be the same/different this year?
  • Be aware of and acknowledge your limitations. Accept lowered expectations regarding what you can accomplish.
  • It may be easier to do things differently this year. How you do things this year can be changed again next year.
  • To avoid uncomfortable situations, plan ahead. Consider the empty place at the table; or your response to those wishing you a “happy” holiday or a “merry” Christmas.
  • Allow yourself to laugh and to feel good. Sharing good times is not being disrespectful to the memory of your loved one.
  • Remember you will not always feel the intense pain you may experience at this time. You will never forget your loved one and the pain of his or her death will lessen as time goes.

Create new traditions 

Choosing to celebrate holidays in new and different ways can be significant and meaningful. Repeating familiar traditions may make the absence of the deceased loved one more obvious and more painful. Do what is best for you. As time goes by, you will again be able to enjoy the holidays.

  • Allow a restaurant to be responsible for the special holiday dinner.
  • Shop from catalogs or the internet.
  • Reduce your mailing list. Send holiday greetings to only a select few.
  • If familiar religious services are too painful or not available in a safe, digital format, attend an online service from a different church, synagogue or mosque.
  • Buy that “perfect gift” for the deceased loved one and give it to a donation center or a homeless shelter.
  • Keep your loved one’s name and spirit alive. Donate to a cause he or she felt strongly about and supported.
  • A table-top tree or a centerpiece of evergreens can be meaningful. It eliminates the stress of a live tree.

Take care of yourself

Self-care is very important during this time. Take time for yourself.

  • Feel what you feel; your feelings are legitimate. Accept your feelings and be gentle with yourself.
  • Engage in individual spiritual and/or religious activities. Spend time in prayer and meditation.
  • Ask for and accept help. Learn to ask for what you need in a straightforward way.
  • Sleep, exercise and healthy meals are essential when grieving. They are also important at holiday time.
  • Light a special candle. Look at photos and recall memories of times spent with your loved one. Reminisce with others.
  • Plan time for you to do what feeds your soul.
  • Accept that there will be sad times. If you need to, cry.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of depression. Seek professional assistance if needed.
  • In the safest way possible, surround yourself with the people and the activities that you prefer – not only what others expect of you.
  • Remember, feelings change. With hope and with time you can again experience peace and joy.

While it can be devastating to lose a loved one at any time, the pandemic has made the grieving process more challenging and has caused many others to grieve other types of losses. Additional resources are available on the CDC's page about managing loss and grief.  

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