Joy to the world, the holidays are here. Everyone around you is either in a state of mindless consumerism or cheerful celebration (or both). You, on the other hand, are trying to cope with the loss of your loved one. And all this holiday cheer makes it a whole lot more difficult.
Whether your loved one passed away very recently or further back in the past, any loss feels amplified by the holidays. Normally you would be celebrating with them, so you feel completely lost without them.
In this article I will look at why grief during the holidays hurts so badly, what psychologists have to say about it, and I’ll share some essential tips for how to cope with grief during the holidays.
Why Does Grief During the Holidays Hurt So Bad?
You’ve probably managed to put together some kind of a routine for handling your grief. Then the holidays come along and flip everything on its head. Then the routine no longer fits, and you are left feeling helpless, perhaps not knowing what to even do minute to minute.
You might have thought you were through the hardest part of grieving… until you got to the holidays, which showed you how wrong you were. It can be a shock to see how strong the pain is during the holiday season.
Holiday cheer is everywhere, and now it looks transparently meaningless to you. You can see right through the fakeness and the commercialism. You can’t relate to anyone around you, so you feel utterly alone.
2 Realities Existing At Once
It’s a scientific fact that grief during the holidays is harder to bear. Sherry Cormier, PhD specializes in helping people with grief, and says, “It amplifies that everything has changed for you. That everything is different than it used to be”.
Therese Rando, PhD, clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, says it very accurately. “The central task at the holidays is the bereaved person has to hold two realities simultaneously… They acknowledge the loss of the person who’s not here that they want to be here, and acknowledge the presence of the people who are still here that they want to be connected to.”
After all, says George A. Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology and author of The Other Side of Sadness, the human mind purposefully keeps grief from being predictable. “Constant pain would exhaust us,” he says. “So we experience sadness and other emotions in short bursts, and in between we get a bit of a break, maybe even a laugh or a smile.”
How Can I Handle the Holidays Without My Loved One?
Most psychologists agree that the best way you can handle the holiday season is to prepare yourself when it’s coming up. That means preparing in a few different ways. Getting yourself mentally prepared is the first step, which means understanding that this is going to be a very difficult time emotionally, and knowing that you WILL be able to get through this.
Another way to prepare is to make set plans of what you’re going to do for the holidays. Who would you like to spend it with? What activities would you feel comfortable doing? How much time will you spend at home versus at other’s homes?
The key is to plan to eliminate as much stress and anxiety as possible from your celebrations. When you’re surrounded by people who love you and understand, it’s a lot easier to handle this difficult time.
“Constant pain would exhaust us,” he says. “So we experience sadness and other emotions in short bursts, and in between we get a bit of a break, maybe even a laugh or a smile.” - George A. Bonanno
5 Valuable Tips for How To Cope
with Grief During the Holidays
I put together this list of tips from my own experience with grieving during the holidays, as well as from psychological theories on what can help with handling the pain. I hope that these things help you.
- Set Clear Boundaries
Learning to say ‘no’ is always hard, especially if you’re dealing with grief on top of it. But you have to be able to put your foot down and create boundaries of what you can and cannot do over the holidays.
You will likely be invited to a few different gatherings and events, and people might be pretty pushy, expecting you to appear as one of their guests as though nothing has happened at all. These people will have some trouble understanding your boundaries, but don’t let them dissuade you.
You might want to limit your visit to a few hours rather than participating in a gathering all day. You might want to avoid having a particular person involved in your day. Create boundaries around what will feel most tolerable for you, and stick to them.
- Go Easy On Yourself
You don’t want others to expect you to be fine. In the same way, be sure not to hold high expectations for yourself either. We can be incredibly hard on ourselves, and this is a time when you’re going to need to be gentle and loving with yourself.
Self-care is vital during times of intense grief. It’s easy for self-care routines to kind of fly out the window when things get really rough, but that’s when you need them most. Take a shower, brush your teeth, sleep regular hours and try to eat healthy (as much as you can eat healthy during the holidays).
Forgive yourself for not being perfect. You will need to escape to the bathroom sometimes to cry by yourself, and that’s ok. If you don’t feel like braving the shopping mall for holiday shopping, try buying your presents online.
- Understand That Joy Is Allowed
This is important to understand: If you should start to feel a little bit of joy during your holiday gathering, don’t hold it back for fear of somehow abandoning the memory of the one you are celebrating without. By all means, crack a smile or even laugh out loud. Laughter is the best medicine.
The fact is, your loved one would want you to be happy and enjoy yourself. Don’t let your grief forbid you to feel joy, because that is unhealthy. You are allowed to have fun and be cheerful, so give yourself that permission.
This article talks about letting go, and how it doesn’t mean forgetting your loved one.
- Memorialize Your Loved One
The holidays are an important time to hold the memory of your loved one close, and celebrate the joy they brought to your life. You can do this by memorializing them in some way. When you find a way to have your loved one’s memory with you during celebrations, it makes things feel far more tolerable.
Precious keepsakes that remind you of the beloved person you have lost will help you get through the holidays. You could hang a beautiful ornament in their memory, or carry a touchstone in your pocket (a small item that makes you feel closer to your loved one).
- Create Some New Holiday Traditions
The holiday traditions that your loved one used to be part of might become very difficult to bear. Maybe it’s time to let those traditions go, and develop some new ones that don’t feel as sad.
Creating joyful new memories and traditions shouldn’t feel like a betrayal of your loved one who has passed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your grief is the only way to hold onto the love you used to have.
The holidays will come and go each year, causing emotional turbulence. The important thing to recognize is “this too shall pass”. The holidays will be over soon and you’ll be able to get back to your normal coping routine.
Right now, in the heart of the holidays, it can feel like your heart is broken and can never be repaired. I promise you this isn’t the case. Celebrate your loved one as much as you can, and over time you’ll be able to handle the holidays without them. Remember, they would want you to be happy.