When Grief and Loss Stand in the Way of Comfort and Joy in the Holiday Season

A Black woman in her 50s expresses feelings of grief over the loss of a loved one while she sits near a Christmas tree in the background

By Jeannie Finnegan, CDP, Elder Care & Dementia Care Specialist at Stanton Aging Solutions

Family and togetherness are key themes for the holidays. Scenes of holiday hustle and bustle, idyllic decorations, and happy families can inspire us and get us into the holiday spirit. Perhaps your own family will be gathering together, your home is beautifully decorated, and your holidays are all that you hope them to be. Or maybe not! All the television commercials, Hallmark Christmas movies, and holiday activities can make this time of year awfully difficult for people who are grieving a loss. If the grief is fresh, holiday cheer can seem like an affront. The holidays can also be challenging if you have no family nearby, and celebrations can underscore how alone people feel.

Grief during the holidays is a common experience. If this is your first holiday season after the death of a loved one, you might be grappling with whether you should carry on traditions while grieving. Or perhaps you are grieving the loss of how things “used to be,” now that you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another serious illness. Here are some helpful thoughts for coping with – and perhaps learning to once again enjoy – this holiday season.

  • Let yourself feel the way you feel.  Everyone copes with loss in their own way. Your emotional responses to loss are valid and are part of your unique healing process.
  • Invest your energy in making concrete efforts to feel better and heal.
  • Grief is nearly universal, but it expresses itself in many different ways, and sometimes resembles major depression.
  • Grief is not a tidy, orderly process, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Emotions tend to collide and overlap, especially during the holiday season when the emphasis is on celebrations, family, and fun. If the usual traditions feel too painful, especially if the loss occurred recently, consider:

  • Resuming traditions when you’re ready
  • Changing the location of a celebration or visiting family in a different city
  • It’s also okay to sometimes be alone in your grief

Strategies that may help you or someone you know who is grieving during the holidays

  • Start a new tradition in honor of your loved one, such as …
    • During a holiday dinner, place a lighted candle on the dinner table
    • Give a toast
    • Have those gathered together share a story or memory of the person
    • Plant a flower or tree
    • Visit the person’s grave
    • Say special prayers
    • Keep photos close. For instance, wear a locket with a photo of the person, or display a photo of you and a loved one taken at a special event or holiday celebration.
    • Change the celebration. Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal.
  • Express your needs.
  • Help someone else or volunteer at a charitable or religious organization.
  • Donate to a favorite cause in memory of your loved one.
  • Give yourself time. Depending on the strength of the broken bond, grief can be life-long, though it usually softens, and holidays become easier to handle.

How to ask for help from loving family and friends

Don’t hesitate to seek support from others and don’t be afraid to accept help. Here are some easy ways to make sure your family and friends can help in the most meaningful ways:

  • Be clear about whether you prefer to grieve privately or with the support of others.
  • Use the “notecard method.” When people ask how they can help, hand them a note card or have them choose something they feel they can do, such as:
    • Holiday or grocery shopping
    • Food preparation
    • Wrapping gifts
    • Help with decorating
    • Specific prayer requests

Ways to handle holiday stress

The holidays can be extremely stressful. A 2018 study found that a whopping 88 percent of Americans view the holiday season as the most stressful period of the year. This is especially true if you’ve recently experienced a loss.

  • Avoid comparing this holiday to past holidays or yourself to past versions of you. Sometimes we think, “Wow, I used to be able to do it all and do it perfectly. What’s happened to me?” Do what you can and celebrate even the small moments and beauties of the season. Accept your limitations and focus on what you CAN do.
  • Practice being in the present and being mindful of joyful experiences.
  • Remind yourself of what you are grateful for in your life, every day.
  • Tell your loved ones how much you care about them without hesitation and avoid confrontation when possible. No arguments. If a situation begins to get ugly, hold back from using hurtful language.
  • Take time to evaluate the year behind you and look forward to what the future has in store.

As we find ourselves in the thick of another holiday season, even with all the best advice and strategies in the world, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed. Maybe you need some help decorating or buying gifts, or perhaps you’re struggling to care for a loved one. Maybe you’ve tried everything but still feel depressed and disconnected. We are here for you. The best gift you can give yourself this holiday season is to reach out for the help you need. Please contact us at (443) 812-1028, email help@stantonagingsolutions.com or use our Contact Form. There is always a reason for hope, so make this holiday season your turning point.

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