Grief During the Holidays


It is "that" time of year again. The daylight fades quickly, the weather is noticeably colder and seemingly overnight stores have turned into variations of Santa's workshop. For many people, the months of November, December and January are a festive time to celebrate holidays with those they love. The carols, parties and gift-giving atmosphere create a wonderful opportunity to express gratitude and reflect on the fullness of another year.

However, this is not true for everyone. Many people find these months to be a particularly painful season. Instead of being a time of peace on earth, some find themselves experiencing grief, anger or isolation, not to mention the stress that often accompanies Western holiday traditions.

Some of my clients dread this time of year because it ushers in memories of loved ones who have died. Whether it is the first holiday spent without someone or the thirty-first, people may often find themselves thinking about the person who is gone, the bittersweet memories of past celebrations and what it was like at the end of the loved one's life. If there were unresolved issues in the relationship or if the death was unexpected, there can also be additional levels of complexity in the grief. Instead of being a happy time, the holidays are an anniversary of loss and sad endings.

Being surrounded by images, customs and sounds of celebration can also be difficult for people who are struggling with strained relationships. This can take a variety of forms: the person who just broke-up with a romantic partner; the parent who is struggling with an angry child; the adult trying to ignore the memories of abuse that happened every year at this time; or the person unable to be with the rest of the family during the holidays because of work, physical distance or low funds. The holidays can be a disheartening reminder that, for whatever reason, someone is living without meaningful connections.

If the end-of-year holidays are a difficult time for you, know that you are not alone. A survey conducted by Healthline in 2015 found that over sixty percent of respondents experienced their stress to be "very or somewhat" high during the holidays. Only ten percent of people reported feeling no stress at all during this time.

What can you do to help yourself get through and maybe even enjoy this time of year? First and foremost, be kind to yourself. Grief, loneliness and isolation are very real experiences and are heavy to hold. You are not a bad person for not being happy during the holidays just because the popular societal narrative tells you that is how you should feel.

Second, find ways to honor the people, relationships and customs that are important to you. Whether that means setting out a picture of a loved one who made the holidays special or starting a new tradition that honors everything you have survived, create a moment that celebrates your lived experience during this season.

Third, connect with people you enjoy being with who care about you as much as possible. You do not need to do a holiday type of activity. Grab a cup of coffee, go rock climbing, send someone a letter expressing gratitude for who they are in your life. If you do not have someone in your life to connect with, try attending a community event that sounds fun to you or finding a local non-profit to volunteer with during a holiday. 

Though the holidays are not always the happiest time of the year, you can make this season into what you would like and need it to be. Taking good care of yourself is reason enough to celebrate.