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Surviving the Holidays: Grief Reminders

The whole time I was growing up, my mom always asserted that she needed to stay up later than everyone else on Christmas Eve, “so that I have time to listen to my favorite Christmas album and cry.” This seemed like evidence that my mother was really weird when I was a child, but many years later seems like evidence of her wisdom.

As anyone who has ever suffered a loss can tell you, anniversaries and milestones can be very difficult--whether that’s the anniversary of a death, the birthday of a loved one who has died, or a milestone that someone isn’t there for. Holiday celebrations, too, often bring up thoughts of those who are not there to celebrate, even years after a loss. They might also bring up feelings related to other forms of loss--like the loss of a relationship, a place, a time in your life that isn’t here any more. The COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us grieving loved ones or coping with trauma, and others experiencing collective grief, or the loss of feelings of safety or normalcy. Grief does not run on a schedule, and you have to find your own way through it, but below are some strategies that can help.

Make room for all your emotions. By finding time alone to listen to that old album, my mother was making space for the complexity of her own emotions at Christmas. The holidays intersect with our whole lives, with all their joys and sadness and anger and uncertainty. Trying to force away negative emotions often compounds suffering. Try using new or old rituals to make space for your grief--incorporating a prayer or a decoration that makes the lost person present, writing a letter to the person you’ve lost, or just making time with family or friends to share memories.

Opt out of what isn’t right for you. That said, especially if a loss is recent, you might not feel ready to confront some holiday experiences at all, and that’s okay. It’s fine to cancel an activity or even a whole celebration that you think will just be too painful for you right now. Often after a loss, there’s pressure for life to go on just as it was, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of grieving. If something isn’t right for you this year, you can always come back to it next year.

Identify your go-to strategies for self-soothing. What works for you when emotions are overwhelming? Solitude, company, going for a walk, listening to music, washing the dishes, meditation? Make time for self-care throughout the holiday season, but also consider making a plan for what self-soothing strategies you can use if you feel overwhelmed during the celebrations you have chosen to participate in. For example, have a way to leave a celebration early if you need to, or ask a host if there’s a spot in the house where you can take a break if you need.

Seek meaning. We often can’t directly control emotions like happiness or sadness, and sometimes it’s helpful to accept your emotions and focus on what you can do that is important to you. Doing something to help others around the holidays can bring comfort and meaning. Perhaps it’s a gift of time or money that honors the memory of your loss. Supporting those around you who may also be grieving can also be a source of meaning, and help you receive comfort and support in turn.

Reach out to your supports. Often people who have been through a loss feel pressure to protect people close to them from their pain, especially at times when you’re “supposed” to be happy, but this can cut you off from some of your best sources of support. Try to identify the people close to you who you can open up to about how you’re feeling. Just saying out loud “This is really hard for me this year” is a good first step to connecting with others and making it through the experience. If you feel you need professional help to cope with your grief, we're here to help. Reach out today to schedule your free consultation.

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