21st Century Aging

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Grieving and the Holidays

Tips for coping

The holidays can be a difficult time for those who have lost a loved one. Although I don’t believe we can make too many generalizations about grieving, it is safe to say that most people who have experienced loss find the holidays challenging. 

We are taught that the holidays are supposed to be a time of excitement and joy; we see this depicted on television and in countless advertisements. Unfortunately, many of us do not experience the holidays as being surrounded by loving family, in front of a fireplace, or near a glowing Christmas tree. People who have lost someone they love can feel alone and isolated when feeling pressured to have the “right” kind of holiday experience.   

Here are some tips for getting through the holidays, particularly when dealing with grief:

Plan ahead. Prepare for the days that you expect you will feel worse and think about where you want to be and whom you want to be with. All of the holidays, whether affiliated with religion or not, often cause us to feel like we need a place to go.

Reach out to others who have experienced loss. Folks who have lost someone understand how you feel. They know the holidays can be very lonely.

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Manage your emotions and think about what you need when you are with others. Crowds can feel overwhelming when you have experienced the loss of a loved one. Plan ahead if you think you will need to find time to be alone and make this happen. Organize your alone time so that you can do what you need to recharge.

Give yourself permission to not be “on” at all times during the holiday season. Sensitive friends and family will understand that feeling sad is normal. 

Some people can experience jealousy of others during the holidays. Friends or acquaintances with good family and partnered relationships can make some people who are grieving feel that life is unjust and unfair. While this is true, jealousy and envy can make it harder to connect with others.  Remember that these feelings are normal, but it’s better to keep these emotions in check.

Pay attention to how you are coping and note if you tend to soothe yourself with food or alcohol.  Though the holidays are a time in which indulgence is normalized, be mindful when eating and drinking become a way to escape.   

Remember that it is okay if you do not feel joyous. The holidays are a bit like birthdays; they cause mixed feelings and people often deal with mixed feelings by forcing a false sense of happiness.   Take each moment as it comes. Sometimes you might feel happy and grateful, at others you may feel sad or angry. There are no rules about how to feel.

Not sure what you will do on specific days during the holidays? Talk with others about what their plans are.  It is easy to assume that everyone has somewhere to go, but this is rarely the case. Let people know if you will be alone. A gentle reminder that you might appreciate an invitation is okay.

If you are not sure that you want to be with others during the holidays, consider ways to give back to those less fortunate. If you find that you will be alone on a specific holiday, consider offering your time at a local charity that provides meals or help out at a shelter for the homeless.  Giving back is a great way to feel good.   

Despite what we may be told about how to experience the holidays, the only kind of “right” holiday experience is what works for you. 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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