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How to Find Hope While Grieving During the Holidays

The science behind how to find the elusive "hope" in a hard season.

Key points

  • Finding hope is a positive and beneficial way to cope with grief.
  • Hope can serve as the fuel for getting through a challenging season of grief during the holidays.
  • There are ways to integrate the rhythms of winter holidays into the concept of finding hope amidst grief.

While December often marks the joyous start of the winter holiday season, many of us are walking through grief this holiday season, making this one of the hardest months of the year.

Much has been written on how to navigate grief during the holidays, acknowledging that grief triggers are everywhere around us. Whether you lost someone recently or years ago, the winter holidays often bring a pang of missing remembrance for those we’ve lost. But very little has been written on how to find hope in the midst of grief.

Hope Defined

The lack of resources on how to find hope during a grieving holiday season is notable, given that most of the winter holidays celebrated are centered on the idea of finding hope in the dark nights of winter. It is why the Christian calendar celebrates Advent, a time of hopeful waiting for Christ to come amidst a dark and weary season, or why the Jewish calendar celebrates Hanukkah, a time of remembrance of the miraculous sustaining of the candles during the Maccabee’s defeat of the Syrians. Both holidays are celebrated through ritualistic nightly lighting of candles during what are the shortest calendar days of the year. These candles provide a symbol of hope in the darkest days.

The Science Behind Hope

It turns out that there is a science behind hope that can support you during a difficult holiday season. The American Psychological Association notes that hope is “a mechanism that facilitates coping with loss, illness, and other significant stresses.” In other words, hope is a psychologically beneficial form of coping that can be used after experiencing loss. Prior research finds that higher levels of hope among bereaved individuals are associated with greater well-being.

Tips for Finding Hope While Grieving

So exactly how can you find hope if you find yourself grieving this holiday season?

  1. Acknowledge that your hope was or is lost. The first step to finding hope is acknowledging that you likely have experienced a loss of hope. You lost hope that your loved one will be with you, that this holiday season will be the way it used to be, that your life would continue with that person. Experiencing an initial loss of hope or a sense of hopelessness is a very common experience among bereaved individuals. Know that you are not alone but also that you are very likely to find hope again.
  2. Know that your hope can be restored and even transformed for the better. While a loss of hope is often experienced following a loss, many bereaved individuals report both a restoration and ultimately a transformation of hope following a loss. Key to getting there, however, is taking the necessary steps of grieving, gaining emotional support, seeking mental health support (if needed), and finding meaning in the loss. This meaning can take many forms and doesn’t look the same for any one person. It can include things like appreciation for the time you did get with your loved one or the lessons your loved one taught you. It can also include things like having a new sense of appreciation for your life.
  3. Ground yourself in “present-oriented” hope. Prior research indicates that there are two types of hope experienced by parents who have a child with a difficult-to-treat cancer: future-oriented hope and present-oriented hope. While future-oriented hope remains focused on things like a cure and good treatment outcomes, present-oriented hope forces parents to find hope in the “right now” of their extremely challenging circumstances. This type of hope is focused on things like day-to-day and moment-to-moment joys. In much the same way, you may be wishing for things to feel normal and to not feel so heartbroken with grief. But the key to finding hope in a grieving season is to shift your hope to a present-oriented one. It could be spending meaningful moments with your loved ones, hanging Christmas lights, continuing family traditions, or even buying your favorite coffee creamer. These are the small everyday things you can do to bring hope to your current life as it is. Finding ways to seek out support to help you engage in these things can help if you are finding it hard to do on your own.
  4. Create time and space to make room for both grief and hope. Culturally, we tend to feel that you must either be grieving, or you are full of hope. However, you often experience both in waves. It’s important to make space at the table so to speak for either experience to exist, and sometimes even at the same time. Often, bereaved individuals report feeling guilty for moments of joy during a grieving season, but it is perfectly normal to experience and welcome these small moments when they come.
  5. Know what hope is and is not. Hope is not denial or avoidance of how hard this season is. It is not wishful thinking or toxic positivity. Rather, it is the fuel that keeps us going during a difficult season. It is an active form of coping, one connected to many psychological benefits such as greater happiness, positive emotions, and overall well-being as well as lower levels of depression and anxiety. It is a form of resilience. The painful reality of grief is that a part of you dies with that person. But death can often bring new life if we allow hope to take root in our lives.

My hope is that those of us grieving this holiday season find hope in the grief. Light in the dark. For that is where it’s most powerful, most needed, and most likely to show up.

References

Michael, S.T. and Snyder, C.R., 2005. Getting unstuck: The roles of hope, finding meaning, and rumination in the adjustment to bereavement among college students. Death studies, 29(5), pp.435-458.

de Andrade Alvarenga, W., DeMontigny, F., Zeghiche, S., Verdon, C. and Nascimento, L.C., 2021. Experience of hope: An exploratory research with bereaved mothers following perinatal death. Women and Birth, 34(4), pp.e426-e434.

Granek, L., Barrera, M., Shaheed, J., Nicholas, D., Beaune, L., D'agostino, N., Bouffet, E. and Antle, B., 2013. Trajectory of parental hope when a child has difficult‐to‐treat cancer: A prospective qualitative study. Psycho‐oncology, 22(11), pp.2436-2444.

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