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Working Through Grief During the Holidays

Grief triggers appear everywhere when significant holidays arrive.

Key points

  • Grieving a loved one during the holidays can be especially challenging, partly because the person's absence forever changes longstanding rituals.
  • Not everyone experiences grief in the same way, so it is important to be patient with others who grieve differently.
  • People may need time to move back and forth between focusing on their loss and focusing on moving forward.

If your holiday season is a time of grief and hurt, know that you are not alone. Others suffer, too, as the world blares entreaties to be “merry and bright,” but peace and comfort are still attainable for you in the holidays. The past few years have taken an unexpectedly high toll through the loss of too many lives to COVID-19, gun violence, and suicide. These three dark forces have altered the shape of too many lives and as the winter holidays draw arrive, the grief we feel over the people no longer at our tables grows more acute.

While loss due to a loved one’s death is typically the most acute experience of grief, the loss of primary relationships can be especially painful during holidays. In life, rituals provide a sense of direction, stability, and an anchor for us as we move through the year. We may not realize how much we enjoy the rituals in our lives until something happens to disrupt their occurrence or shift the composition of the group with whom we celebrate or mark them. Family dinners, carpooling, holiday gift-giving, special desserts, and so on may all play a significant role in the shape of our lives. When someone is missing, we mourn their absence at an event, but also recognize that the ritual and celebration have inalterably changed, as well. The joy and safety that rituals provide may be interrupted by intense sadness, despair, feelings of loneliness, and anxiety as new ways of doing things must be found.

The Push-Pull of Grieving

Research suggests that many people cope with loss through a “push-pull” type of grieving—we engage in activities that have a loss-oriented focus and those that have a restoration-oriented focus (Bendaña, 2017; Stroebe & Schut, 1999).

Grief is not a passive process—we engage in grief through the investment of energy and emotional resources. Loss-oriented activities include activities like looking at photos of the person you’re mourning, like family photos from prior holiday events. Loss-oriented events might include actively seeking out reminders of your loved one, such as going to places you went together or watching movies you had enjoyed together. When dealing with the heartbreak related to a relationship break-up, you may find yourself listening to music that reminds you of your ex, looking at social media posts of you and your ex, or current posts of your ex that do not include you. We are often drawn to things that drive us to experience intense emotions related to a loss. There can be a sweet pleasure in the pain we feel when priming our memories of shared experiences that we can never have again. There’s pleasure in pain and it’s also cathartic to experience the strong emotions that we are stirring up.

On the other hand, we may balance these loss-focused activities with restoration-oriented behaviors. These are activities that allow us to throw ourselves into something that helps minimize our cognitive investment in the loss. These can be busy-work types of activities, such as raking leaves, shoveling snow, cleaning the house, or washing the dishes. Sometimes physical activity can be a balm for the grieving heart. Not every restoration-focused activity needs to be solo—spending time with people who care about us and help distract us from the grief for a bit can be healing. Having a laugh can be a great way to cope with our loss physically and mentally. Mourning doesn’t follow just one path, but grief should never be seen as an endpoint in itself—we may work through grief and carry our grief with us somewhere in our hearts, but grief is not a destination.

Tips to Cope With Your Own Grief

  • Allow yourself space to acknowledge any losses, despair, or hurt you are feeling. Don’t pretend your feelings do not matter—they do. And they will do more harm to your well-being if you don’t acknowledge they exist.
  • Don’t isolate yourself from others. Social connection has great healing power.
  • Share your feelings with others who care about you—make it “okay” for you and for them to talk about the person who’s no longer there.
  • Create a special new ritual that honors the person who is no longer there. Light a special candle and offer a silent or spoken tribute to this person. Choose a special recipe that was always a favorite and prepare it each year. These activities mark the joy that person brought to you and let you honor their memory in meaningful ways.
  • Seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed and unable to manage on your own. Don’t turn to unhealthy self-soothing behaviors such as alcohol, overeating, or other risky behaviors.

Tips to Help Someone Else Manage Their Grief

  • Be present for this person—even if you don’t know the right words to say, your supportive presence will be enough.
  • Rather than ask a generic “How can I help?” offer specific acts of assistance—“Who do you need me to call?” “I’m picking up dinner—would you prefer pizza or fried chicken?” “I’m stopping by the grocery store on my way in from work today. What do you need me to pick up for you?” “Why don’t I pick up the kids from school this week? Let me know if you’d like me to set a place for you and your child for dinner at my house.”
  • Don’t make judgmental comments about how grief “should” look. Everyone’s grief is going to be different—we all mourn loss, but in our own unique way.
  • Don’t forget about this person in two months or six months. Continue to reach out and include them in events—it can be especially painful for widows and widowers to have their entire social circles close them out once they have lost their partner. If couples’ activities don’t encourage their inclusion, reach out for individual opportunities to get together.
  • Invite this person to talk about the person they’ve lost—don’t assume that avoiding the topic makes the loss any easier for the person to bear. Be the person who allows them to be vulnerable to talk about their loss.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Bendaña, A. (2017). Coping with grief during the holidays. Nursing, 47 (11), 54-56. doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000525991.36485.1b.

Stroebe M, Schut H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: rationale and description. Death Studies 23(3):197–224.

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