Grief During the Holidays – Practical Survival Tips

You are already dealing with grief and loss and here come the holidays. All that cheer and joy in your face every day, and the increased social interaction of office parties, family gatherings and long-standing traditions. How can you function with your grief during the holidays?

My family suffered the devastating and unexpected loss of a loved one this year. I can’t even bear to write about it directly. Someday I will, but not now. I’m a writer, and I want to use that skill to help others who find themselves walking this particular detour through hell, but I can’t yet.

For now, I can use my years of experience and training as a Hospice volunteer along with my current situation to offer some general support to anyone trying to cope with a loss during the holidays.

Grief Has No Comparison

Admittedly, these days I have zero patience for stupidity or whiny drama over trivial matters and I get frustrated easily when things like my printer don’t work. What I also find is that I have an increased awareness of other’s pain and stress from loss.

I see you and I know your pain is real.

Real and tangible grief comes from many kinds of losses. Loss of health, a broken marriage, death of a companion animal, loss of trust after betrayal, loss of security or safety after a traumatic event…. It’s all real grief. It knocks you off your feet and changes everything.

Your loss and grief is yours. I will not tell you that you shouldn’t be hurting as much as I am or crying as often as I do. My loss is not worse than yours or better than another person’s. There is no comparison for despair or heartbreak.

So please do not say those things to yourself, either! You can’t scold yourself out of grief by telling yourself you are better off than others and have no right to be so upset. Your heartbreak is real.

Emotions and holidays go hand-in-hand under “normal” circumstances with all the family dynamics, and our traditions for gifts and food and decorating. There is the added emotional tug of songs and movies and the general theme of miracles and joy and happy endings.

It is hard to reconcile all those holiday expectations with the ups and downs of our grief.

What To Do For The Holidays?

Whatever you do is fine. Whatever you don’t do is fine. That is not meant in a feel-good pop psycho-babble way. It means you need to be honest with yourself and set limits for your holiday gifts, food, decorating and socializing.

If anyone doesn’t like it or tries to make you feel like you should “get over it” they can go jump in the lake. (Did I mention that I have no tolerance for stupidity these days?)

I am mentally and physically exhausted. If you are grieving, you know exactly what I mean. It takes a lot of energy to hold together the broken pieces, try to make sense out of events that will never make sense, and keep putting one foot in front of another.

Be careful of auto-pilot. Auto-pilot is a saving grace when you are numb with grief or having a day when the pain is overwhelming. Heck, that’s what got me back to my day job and a lot of my daily activities caring for my home and pets.

But with the holidays, I have to catch myself and turn off the auto-pilot. My normal holiday traditions are just too much this year, and that’s okay.

Keep It Simple

Thanksgiving was the first hurdle. I thought it would be good for me to keep busy, and good for my husband and me to be around family. It didn’t take long to realize I do not have it in me to do the full traditional family dinner from scratch with all the bells and whistles.

So I compromised. It was a small gathering. I bought frozen pies. I set the table with dishes that could go in the dishwasher instead of the china that required hand-washing. I had fewer side dishes, and those were easy. I used disposable baking pans.

And you know what? It was still too much. I was completely worn out for the next two days.

My husband and I enjoyed our family, and that was the best part. In retrospect, I put way too much on myself.

I could have asked family members to cook, and they would have been happy to help. It would have been perfectly fine to order the whole dinner from Cracker Barrel for pick-up and eat from disposable dishes. For that matter, we could have had frozen pizza and still would have had an uplifting time with loved ones.

In years past, I loved spending days cooking and preparing for a family feast. This year I did not fully appreciate how much my focus and energy levels have been compromised. Don’t make my mistake.

Our family celebrates Christmas. My husband and I agreed we will be very low-key this year. We don’t have little ones to consider so it is easier for us to skip most of the traditional stuff than it might be for you.

We are displaying a Nativity set and have a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree to set on a side table. The rest of the Christmas decorations will stay in storage this year.

We each have been doing little things to try and cheer up the other one. My husband bought me a couple snowman figures for the front porch that he remembered I wanted last year. I put those out and put a string of lights on the porch railing. My neighbor pulled in the driveway, made a cheerful remark about my decorating and I burst into tears.

As they say, it’s complicated.

That’s pretty much the limit of my energy or inclination for Christmas this year outside of attending our church services.

What You Can Say

Say “No, thank you”. Not this year. Thank you for asking.

You do not have to attend gatherings or events that will cause painful reminders, bittersweet reminders or are just too blasted festive for how you are feeling right now.

As noted above, if anyone tries to argue with you about something like a party or shopping, they can take a hike. You are not being mean or selfish!

I am not advocating hiding in a dark room for the season, but practicing self-protection is important. There is no need to add to your distress. If you know that certain places will be tough to take, don’t go there.

There are some relationships, like immediate family, we choose to maintain even when we are grieving. When it comes to extended family, friends and acquaintances, do not feel obligated to engage with people who are not supportive, who wear you out talking about themselves, or who have a unique talent for saying inappropriate things. It helps to screen your calls.

It is very helpful to have someone to talk to that is outside of your normal circle of family and friends. Even a few visits with a bereavement specialist, pastor or counselor can give you a place to vent and cry without any strings attached and will provide a safe outlet for some of your feelings.

Check out your local Hospice, community health center or the employee assistance program through your job to find counseling services. Your regular health care provider may offer some suggestions.

Depression and Complicated Grief

Normal grief includes sadness, crying and a variety of other emotions. Your life has been changed and there will be effects from that. As awful as it is, it is part of the normal grief process.

There are numerous online resources to help you understand grief and loss and ways to take care of yourself during this difficult process.

Sometimes grief becomes so profound or prolonged that it requires professional intervention. If you or someone you know has become severely depressed, is abusing alcohol or drugs to numb the pain, or is unable to function at home or work, please get help.

Thoughts or talk of suicide is an emergency. Please seek immediate help, even if it means going to the nearest hospital emergency room.

What Now?

As for me, I will not be mailing cards, baking a zillion cookies or making cranberry breads for each of my neighbors this year. No big tree, and no big dinner. I might even talk to my husband about going away for Christmas.

I will be doing my best to be supportive of my friends and family that are grieving. I will try to let my close friends who have had suffered losses know that they can still talk to me. It’s okay if we both cry.

What about you? Are you dealing with grief? How are you coping with the holidays – or are you? Do you have a safe place to vent your feelings?

Please feel free to leave your questions or suggestions about grief during the holidays in the comments below.