Grief: Ways to Cope During the Holidays

For some people dealing with the death, illness, or absence of a *significant person, the holidays can be a time of mixed emotions like sadness, guilt, grief, as well as hopelessness. On one hand, we are expected to be festive and merry; on the other, we are reminded that person is no longer here or in the capacity they once were. It can be exhaustive to cope or grieve. Unlike an anniversary or birthday, where the day itself can be dreadful but otherwise there are limited triggers about it, the holiday season is different. The sights, sounds, activities, and gatherings go on for weeks.

Note: I use the term “significant person” rather than “loved one” in recognition that grief is complex. Not all people had loving, supportive relationships with the person who died, but regardless that relationship was still of profound importance. “Significant person” is thus an inclusive term.

Unquestionably, some holidays during other times of the year can be bittersweet, such as Mother’s Day or Easter. Yet as a culture, the holiday season seems to be the most profound in its importance for its emphasis on family gatherings. Thus, it is not surprising that for many people Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day can be especially hard.

The Grieving Grinch

A long time ago, I was close to someone who detested Christmas. He was a classic Grinch. From around September and onward, he would be triggered by reminders. It could not be avoided – every store was already getting decked out with Christmas decorations and toys to sell. By the end of October or perhaps early November, Mariah Carey was already bleating over the speakers at every store. This despair from September through January went on for years, with me making every effort to try to make the months more tolerable for him. Eventually, though, I realized he was too caught up in his grief. I told him that he has no control over the holiday season; that he must radically accept it will come every year no matter what, and that the more he fought against it the more it would breed misery for him. I encouraged him to instead honor his losses, truly grieve, but to still try to enjoy other aspects of the season. He insisted he wanted to avoid it. I asked him to consider, “how exactly would you avoid Christmas?” and he said he would lock himself in his room. My response: “Which would mean you would need to sleep for months. You wouldn’t be able to turn on the TV, go on the internet, listen to the radio, really… anything. Because the point is that no matter how much you try to ignore Christmas, it will come anyway.” I don’t know why, but somehow that dry, matter-of-fact response got him to begin thinking differently – he finally stopped fighting the “hatred” which in truth was grief. He was avoiding his grief.

Grief Coping Strategies

While by no means a complete list, the following are tips you may use to help you get through the holiday season if caught in grief.

Skip the holidays – but with a plan

Yeah, I know. I just got done writing about that person where I gave him the exact opposite advice. Hear me out.

The holidays are stressful enough. Compounded with grief, they can feel downright unbearable. The traditions, shopping, cooking, family, parties… all of it can feel tiring even when thinking about it. I want you to know it is okay to skip the holiday season. You may face backlash for saying no to Thanksgiving dinner, but your self-care comes first.

Remember these points before canceling your holiday season:

1) The holidays will come again. This year you may not have the energy to deal with the holidays, but next year may be different. At that time, you may feel ready to engage again. Do not think you have to be in a rut each year. That is unfair to you.

2) Ask yourself, “am I skipping the holidays to help myself or just to avoid the pain?”. If you need to, take your pen to paper to come to this answer. You may truly want to skip the holidays, or  maybe you are feeling pressured by others (family, society, etc.) to celebrate.

Additionally, ask yourself if you are prioritizing your self-care versus having avoidance. In psychology, avoidance coping is a maladaptive coping mechanism (in other words, an unbeneficial or unhelpful technique) that means to avoid processing the thoughts, feelings, and stressors associated with an issue. In grief, this can mean you are refusing to process the loss of the significant person, procrastinating things that need to be done that remind you of the person, or being in denial of emotions you are feeling. While this seems helpful in the present moment, it only intensifies the anxiety. It festers like an untreated wound.

3) Decide what you will do for the holidays, rather than only what you will not do. Remember that if you say no to going to dinner at Uncle Joe’s house, ultimately the rest of the family will be there. Then what? What is your plan? Before that day springs up on you, plan accordingly. If your idea of self-care is to binge-watch Cobra Kai in your bedroom on Thanksgiving, do so! But do not wait until the holiday arrives to try to plan as that may increase your negative emotions; you may make yourself feel unintentionally worse.

4) You may have regret or sadness if you skipped the holiday. On that day, you may go on social media only to notice the get-together at Uncle Joe’s house looked fun. Maybe there is a funny video of your younger cousin making a snide comment on TikTok. Maybe your sister posted a Facebook video of your three-year-old nephew unwrapping presents with a big smile. Ask yourself if it is worth you skipping the holiday or instead if you may find happiness in being with others.

Did you watch A Muppet Family Christmas special when you were younger? If so, remember when Fozzie Bear and his friends drove to Fozzie’s mother’s house with the intention of spending Christmas with her, only to find out she rented out the home to a man and his dog who wanted to avoid everyone for Christmas while she ran off to Malibu? Although the man was upset at first that his holiday did not go as planned, he ended up having an even better time because he allowed himself to join in the festivities.

5) Or you may have an even better day if you put yourself first! In that same special, Fozzie Bear’s mother was having the time of her life on the beach in Malibu.

Do not make comparisons

It is tempting to see other individuals or families enjoying festivities and comparing their experiences to your grief. You may feel worse, like you “should” feel merry.

It is important to remember that even under the best of circumstances, the holidays are stressful for most people and families. The sappy, magical events shown on television and captured in greeting cards are rarely the reality. For instance, you do not know if the hostess of the dinner was in a vicious argument with her spouse only minutes before the guests arrived, only to hide it all behind a beaming smile. You do not know if the parents are struggling to buy presents for their children. Instead, think about what you do have – you may feel more gracious!

Extend yourself to others

If you have the time, consider volunteering your time to someone who needs the extra support (Long Island Volunteer Opportunities). This could be spending the holidays at a hospice, nursing home, hospital, soup kitchen, or shelter. Your love and support toward a stranger may make their holiday memorable and bright, while benefiting your own mental health by taking your focus off the grief. Volunteering is very helpful in the healing process of grief!

Alternatively, reach out to a family member or friend who may need some help right now.

Remember that the anticipation can be worse than the day

In my work as a grief therapist and as someone who has experienced significant losses, I have noticed the phenomenon of anticipation being worse than the holiday itself. My hypothesis is that by experiencing the surge of emotions beforehand, we are thereby allowing ourselves to think the day itself will be awful, which will make us feel better when that day arrives, and we find we are okay. In essence, it is making us “cope ahead” by going through the storm beforehand.

Find support

You may reach out to friends and family for emotional support with your grief, but are worried about doing so because they may be preoccupied with the holiday season. Consider joining a grief support group.

Let yourself feel your emotions

Your emotions are valid. Do not think you must feel happy because it is the holidays or otherwise there is something “wrong” with you. If you feel angry, let yourself vent. If you feel sadness, allow the tears to flow. If you feel lonely, reach out to a friend.

Ask for help

We as a culture tend to be cautious of asking those who are grieving if they need help. We may assume it would be an unwanted reminder or we simply do not know what to say. Other times we may think that the bereaved are doing okay.

Please speak up if you need help from a friend, neighbor, or family member. Perhaps that entrusting someone else to make a particular favorite dish, cleaning up the house, or getting some other tasks done. People tend to feel satisfaction when they know they are caring for someone they love.

Other ideas

Are you looking for more ideas for coping through the holiday season? If so, go here.

Valerie Smith, LMSW