10 Ways to Cope With Grief During the Holidays

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Although the holidays are usually a happy time of year, they can be painful for people who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Things like toxic positivity and social isolation can deter grievers from expressing their feelings and getting the support they need. Sadly, holiday grief is something I have firsthand experience with.

In 2012, I experienced the unexpected death of my dad right before Christmas. Since then, grief has cast a shadow not only on the holiday season, but also throughout the year. Many people are currently experiencing grief due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as non-COVID-related deaths. 

Grief is not something people should deal with alone and everyone experiences grief differently. Thankfully, there are ways that you can cope with it. Here are 10 tips for coping with grief during the holiday season.

1. Don't give in to the toxic positivity that is so prevalent during the holiday season.

Toxic positivity is when people are expected to be positive and happy all the time without acknowledging other feelings. While the holidays can be a joyous occasion for gatherings between family and friends, you shouldn't have to hide your grief behind holiday cheer. Even if you are the only one acknowledging it, it is better to do so in a healthy way to avoid an emotional implosion or engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms like overeating or binge drinking.

2. Don't celebrate the holidays if you don't want to.

After my dad's passing, my mom can no longer bear to celebrate Christmas and I respect her decision. Just because everyone else wants to celebrate the holidays, doesn't mean you have to. Although the holidays can be hard to avoid due to the pressure of commercial advertisements and social expectations, know that it is entirely possible to treat the holidays as just another day. Tell family and friends that you don't want to do so and set firm boundaries about how much holiday cheer you can tolerate.

3. Remember to check in with yourself.

Both toxic positivity and the pressure to celebrate the holidays with other people can cause you to neglect your own feelings. Before you see anyone else, ask yourself questions like “How am I doing today?” and “What do I need to get through today?” Asking these questions can help you ration your physical, emotional, and mental energy so that you don't overextend yourself, especially in social situations.

4. Do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help or support when struggling with grief during the holidays.

Grief should not be shouldered alone but it can be a polarizing experience. During the first year after my dad's death, I handled my grief poorly by lashing out, isolating myself, and burying myself in college coursework. Since I had to be strong for my mother's sake, I felt like the best way to “get over” my grief is to deal with it alone. If I had known at that time that my grief was just as valid as my mother's, then I would've been able to learn about my college's free psychological services to get counseling. 

5. Commiserate with those who are also experiencing grief during the holidays.

If you're struggling, then there is support available. There are counselors and psychologists who specialize in grief and there might be some available in your area.  If you can't talk in person to a family member or friend who shares your loss or a grief counselor, there are also online groups available. Some examples of online grief support groups are Grief In Common and Grieving.com

6. Remember that grief has no time limit. 

Contrary to what some might think, time doesn't completely erase the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. Grief comes and goes in waves and the holiday season might bring out a particularly big wave for some even if the loved one passed away years ago. 

One wave hit me in October when I realized that the 10th anniversary of my dad's death was a couple of months away, reminding me of things that I hadn't been able to share with him since his passing. No matter how long it's been since a loved one's passing, it is OK to acknowledge any grief you still might be feeling.

7. Remember that it is possible to celebrate the holidays and acknowledge any grief you're feeling.

If you still want to celebrate the holidays despite losing a loved one, then you don't need to feel guilty about doing so. Just because you've lost a loved one, doesn't mean you have to stop living and enjoying the things that make you happy. It is also OK if you feel any grief while trying to celebrate. The fact that you feel grief while celebrating the holidays shows how much you love the one who passed away as well as the loved ones still here.

8. Set aside a place or time during the holiday season to remember those you've lost.

Whether or not you're celebrating the holidays, it is important to set aside time to remember those you have lost. It could be as simple as leaving a seat at the dining table specifically for your departed loved one or saying a prayer for them. When it comes to my own loss, I like to play music that my Dad would've liked to hear and remember the moments I had with him.

9. Consider how you can carry on your loved ones' memory.

If you aren't ready or don't want to do this, then you do not have to. If you are in a good place to do this, then it might be cathartic to think of ways that you can honor the memory of your lost loved ones. In fact, I managed to do this myself this year when I wrote a poem for my Dad about taking on his nickname. I shed some tears, but I also felt more at peace later on.

10. Find ways to give yourself joy.

You deserve to be happy despite your grief and loss, even if you can't feel happy right now. I give myself joy during the holidays by watching Christmas movies that remind me of fun and magical childhood Christmases. Whether it is eating a favorite dessert or wearing your favorite winter clothes, you can give yourself the joy that you want to feel. 

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