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A Guide for Coping with Grief at the Holidays

A guide to coping with grief at the holidays
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A Guide for Coping with Grief at the Holidays

The holidays are traditionally filled with joy and celebration, though for some, it can be a profoundly challenging period, especially if they are coping with the heavy weight of grief.

Below are some tips to help you navigate the holidays while dealing with the complex emotions and difficulties of loss. Whether you have recently experienced a loss or are supporting someone who has, these insights aim to help you find comfort, solace, and meaningful ways to honor your emotions during this time of year.

Understanding Your Grief

Grief can take many forms, even for individuals who have experienced the same loss. How each person experiences that loss is unique to them. Grief is more than an emotion, it’s a process of both emotion and experiences, says Shannon McCarthy, Ph.D., a counselor and assistant professor at the UAB School of Education. “There is no uniform way to experience or move through grief.”

But Wait: What About the 5 Stages?

The traditional five stages of grief, which encompass denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, are well-known. This describes grief as a linear progression where you move from one stage to the next, culminating in acceptance. However, McCarthy points out that this interpretation can be misleading. Grieving doesn’t necessarily follow a straight path, and the pace of progression through each stage can vary greatly from person to person.

McCarthy cautions against rigidly comparing one’s grief process to these stages. Comparisons might make you feel you’re not progressing or are “stuck” if your experience doesn’t align. The reality is that grief is highly individualized. While some people might identify with these stages, others may not experience certain stages at all. Grief is unique to everyone, and there is no one “right” way to grieve​.

Prepare for Changes

Accept that the holidays might look different. Being prepared for changes in traditions or experiences can make them easier to navigate. Be open to altering holiday traditions. It may be necessary to adapt or create new rituals that honor your loved one, while still allowing space for the grief you may be feeling.

Be Gentle with Yourself

Acknowledge your feelings and avoid self-imposed expectations. Get rid of the “shoulds”—such as thinking you “should” attend an event or that you “should” maintain previous traditions.  The team at the blog What’s Your Grief suggests it’s crucial to be kind to yourself by acknowledging your feelings. You may not feel like going to an event you always go to, and that’s OK.

Set Boundaries

Part of being gentle with yourself is setting boundaries. It’s okay to say no to events or traditions that feel too painful. This could mean choosing not to attend certain family gatherings, opting out of specific holiday rituals, or even redefining how you celebrate the season, says Joy Francisco, Ph.D. The key is to listen to your feelings and honor what you need at the moment. For instance, if being around certain people or in specific places triggers your grief or makes you uncomfortable, give yourself permission to avoid them.

And remember, it’s not just about saying no to others; it’s also about saying no to the guilt you may feel to say yes to something because you’re being pressured or overwhelmed.

Saying no is about making choices that are the best for you and your well-being, Francisco continues, even if it means saying no to something you’ve previously agreed to​.

Seek Support

Communicate with close friends or family about your feelings. It can be scary to open up and show your vulnerability, but people won’t understand what you need if you don’t tell them. Fostering open communication with loved ones about your emotions is beneficial to set clear expectations about your comfort levels during the holidays, according to the National Council on Aging.

You can also express your feelings through writing activities like journaling or composing letters to the departed, providing a sense of connection and emotional release​.

Grief Is Not the Endpoint

Grief isn’t a place where you unpack and settle down permanently. Instead, it’s a process that continually evolves and shifts with time. The intensity of grief can fluctuate, and it’s normal to have moments of joy amidst your grief. Permit yourself to experience a mix of emotions, recognizing that it’s possible to simultaneously feel sadness for your loss and joy for something else.

Remember, grief is a highly individual experience, and there is no “right” way to navigate it. Find what works best for you during the holiday season. Your way of coping with grief is unique to you, and it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate in your own way. . .or not at all.

by Carrie Phelps-Campbell, Sunset Contributor

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