Managing Grief Through the Holidays

It was Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, the first Thanksgiving without my brother, just months after a drunk driver had ended his life. I needed to get some shopping done and I found myself at a mall. The instant I stepped inside, I was enveloped in holiday atmosphere. Everything shone and glittered, music rang out, scents of pine and cinnamon candles mingled with the smell of perfumes being sprayed on shoppers in the department stores. Delight hung in the air.

I, however, couldn’t feel anything but despair. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I couldn’t wait to get out.

This was not like me. I have always loved holiday times with all of their various sensory experiences. I enjoy walking through shops thinking of what loved ones might like, baking seasonal treats, listening to the my parents’ holiday LPs (yes I still have a turntable), sitting and enjoying tree lights, or candles in the menorah, or any other glow that a December holiday might bring.

Now, however, it was like everything had been turned inside out. The holiday time, rather than improving my unhappy state, had made it worse. This is the paradox that so many, grieving through the holiday seasons year after year, experience and must endure.

In general, we expect holiday times and their festivities to cheer us for a time and provide a happy haven away from the struggles and frustrations of our daily lives. However, when someone you love has died, whether you are days, months, or years out from the loss, holidays may have the opposite effect. What used to bring extra joy can now bring extra misery, leaving you confused and empty.

Holidays and holiday seasons arrive, year after year, without fail. We cannot avoid them. How can we adjust our expectations? How can we hope to find something of use to us within them? The answers lie within each of us, because each has a unique experience of loss and grief. If we give ourselves time and opportunity to ponder what we can and want to do, we may be able to choose actions that work for us. Use these ideas to get started as you think through your holiday plans.

Do something different. Many people find that doing whatever they used to do with their loved one is too painful. Try different traditions. Spend the holiday in a new location, include an activity you’ve never done for the holidays, eat something completely other than what you normally eat.

Do something traditional. Others find that they seek the comfort of their holiday traditions even more than before. If you find solace in your customary preparations, this may be true for you. How do you know if traditions such as decorating, attending services, or special foods and meals will be helpful? Give them a try, or even just think about them, and you’ll probably know intuitively whether you want to keep them or set them aside for a while.

Spend time on your own. Many grievers feel closest to the person who died when they are alone. Whether you curl up in bed alone for an hour, walk alone in the woods, head off on a drive alone in your car, or anything else, grant yourself some privacy. You might be quiet, you might scream and cry, you might talk out loud to the person you miss so much. Being alone can grant you permission to feel, and do, what you need.

Find ways to include your loved one. Some need to talk about the person openly. Some might want to tuck a photograph into a piece of holiday decoration. Some may make the person’s favorite holiday food. Some may include the person’s name in blessings said at home or at a service. Do what helps you feel your loved one is not forgotten or left out.

Change your mind. No law says you have to stick with any decision you have made. If you thought going to a friend’s holiday party would cheer you up, but once there you find yourself falling apart – give yourself permission to leave. If you brought home a tree but cannot bring yourself to decorate it – let it be. If you invite family to visit but then find it overwhelming – duck out for a break. If you’ve avoided religious services but wonder if you may find something useful there – try again.

Be your own best friend. Treat yourself gently, and support your own needs and wants. Watch out for the word “should:” If people say you should do something that makes your stomach turn, or should stop doing something that helps you cope (as long as it isn’t destructive or dangerous), find a kind and respectful way to stand up for yourself. Tune in to yourself throughout the holiday to see what you think, feel, and need – and communicate those thoughts, feelings, and needs honestly to those around you.

As you let go of past assumptions about the holidays and turn your focus inward to discover what serves you, you may soften the griever’s holiday paradox. One step at a time, one tick of the clock at a time, one breath at a time, this holiday season will pass by. I hope it offers, somewhere along the way, a little light and strength that you can take with you on your journey ahead.

Sarah Kravits

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Sarah Kravits is a writer and teacher who for over 20 years has co-authored the Keys to Success textbook series on college success, published by Pearson Education. In June of 2014, her only sibling and beloved brother was killed in an auto accident when his vehicle was hit head-on by a severely impaired driver. In navigating this loss through self-exploration and writing, she has come to understand judgment -- specifically negative judgment, of one's self as well as of others -- as a paralyzing force that prevents the full realization of who we are and what we are capable of doing. Her website is at where she blogs regularly on coping with crisis.

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