The special grief of the holiday season

December 23, 2021 - 6 min read

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We’re deep into the holiday season, and everywhere we turn we get the same message: ‘tis the season for joy, family, loved ones. 

It is. Yet for many people, the holidays and the focus on being with loved ones bring a fresh and painful reminder of loved ones we’ve lost. The holiday season is also a season of grieving.

My husband Steve loved the holidays. After he died in 2015, all of the special memories, of his favorite decorations and his stocking, brought anxiety and an indescribable heartache. It has been several years, yet as we build new traditions and carry on without him, I still spend the fall and winter wondering how I will get through it. 

The disconnect between what we see reflected all around us in the media — amped up lights and laughter, hope and cheer — and the absence can be painful and isolating for the griever. To a griever, the gratitude and festivities are a reminder of what once was and can reactivate the sorrow, anxiety, anger, and isolation.

This year, more than ever, many families are experiencing this grief of the empty chair and the missing loved ones. Even for those whose grief is not new, the holidays have a special way of opening up both good memories and longing. It lingers and doubles down through winter. 

Here are some tips to support yourself or someone near you who is grieving. The goal isn't to "make you happy" or make everything better — it's just to get through it less alone and with some comfort.

Tips for grievers or to support a griever 

  • Check in. If you are grieving, check-in with yourself, daily — hourly even. That means tuning in to what you are feeling and what you need rather than trying to plow through. Ask yourself: What do I need at this moment? What do I want? What is my body, mind, or spirit telling me? It's easy to get pulled into the swirl of other people's needs and expectations, especially in the holidays. I put my hand over my heart to ask myself these questions so that I really focus on my needs, rather than the demands of others.

    If you are trying to support someone who is grieving, check-in with grieving friends and family members. Regardless of how much time has passed, holidays can activate many grief waves. Ask a griever how their heart is feeling or who they miss most. Be curious. Most grievers love to talk about their person. Tears are okay. 

    The first holiday after a loss can feel overwhelming, and people are more likely to reach out with support for the griever the first year. Sometimes we forget to support grieving friends in the years following. A simple note or a call at the holidays is a welcome way to show care and acknowledge the long, winding path of grief.
  • Triple down on taking care of yourself.  When the energy of the holidays is like a giant vacuum sucking you dry, we must be proactive. Right now, schedule into your calendar extra sessions of whatever gives you energy, whatever fills your bucket. For me, it's extra walks, baths, and an early bedtime. What brings you energy? Do it.

    While being around others and maintaining social connection is important, large gatherings may feel draining. Pay attention to your energy levels, and try to weave in breaks for fresh air and time for yourself.

    If you are supporting a griever, consider how you can gift them energy. Arrange for energy-enhancing experiences, such as a massage, an afternoon hike, or a drive to the beach. Giving time back is also energy-enhancing — a meal made by you can free them from one day of meal prep. Taking children for an afternoon can give a grieving parent precious space.
  • Give yourself grace. Grieving is a full-time job. And most of us have other jobs and roles we fill. Holidays bring an additional layer of work and emotional labor for all of us, and we simply must give ourselves grace. 

    When we are grieving, especially acute grief, we can't do what we could do before. Our capacity changes because so much of ourselves is overcome with grief. That's okay. It won't be like this forever. Every day, take a moment to breathe and to remind yourself that you are present with your grief. Bathrooms make a great place to escape at any time. 
  • Change things. This is your secret power throughout the season. Don't be afraid to use it. There is no tradition police. If traditions without your loved one don't feel right, don't do them. You have permission to make a change — it could be temporary.

    Spending the holiday in a different location or with different meals can lessen the continual comparison to past years. Other family members may disagree and have varying needs, especially for children, but there is nothing wrong with trying something different. Take one holiday at a time and decide what feels right for this holiday. 

    If you decide to go ahead with the familiar traditions, try to give yourself a plan B — the flexibility to change your mind at the last minute. Most of the time, we don't actually know how we will feel until we are closer to the moment. What had seemed like a comforting routine when you planned it might suddenly feel overwhelming. Plan an escape route. 

The holidays can be tough on grievers. Know that you aren't alone. And if you are leading a team or working with others, know that the grievers are all around you, too. Be gentle in your interactions. 

The holidays can bring up anxiety, sorrow, anger, and many more emotions. Our loved one is gone, and the holiday season can be a string of bright, blinking, and blinding reminders of that fact. It's okay if you aren't feeling the spirit.

This article was originally published on Grief Warrior.

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Published December 23, 2021

Leslie Barber

Network Operations

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