Grief and bereavement during the holidays: What can science tell us?

Grief and the holidays: What can science tell us?

Posted Dec 09, 2009

It happens every year. As the winter holidays approaches, advice mongers begin hauling out their lists of ways to survive the holidays. Inevitably, the topic turns to bereavement. Although the lists are not all the same, most tend to agree that the first holiday without the lost loved one will be miserable, that it will be depressing and mournful and will require a great deal of effort to get through. This dire forecast is usually followed by well-intended suggestions for how to lessen the pain.

What is the basis for this advice? Since most of it comes from therapists or mental health professionals, we can assume that they must be dipping into their years of experience working with bereaved patients. Fair enough. But bereaved people who find their way to a therapist are usually in pretty bad shape. Maybe that's why the advice always sounds so dour? Maybe bereavement over the holidays is not the same for everyone? Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of science about grieving during the holidays. However, as I review in my book ( there is a great deal of scientific evidence about bereavement more generally, and this evidence can certainly help clarify a few points.

First of all, we know that most bereaved people generally cope pretty well. Almost everybody hurts when a loved one dies but most bereaved people are able to keep on going; they work, and love, and move on and eventually the pain recedes. Second, most bereaved people are capable of joy and happiness, even in the midst of their most acute grief experiences. That's the way our emotional systems seem to have evolved. Constant pain would exhaust us. So we experience sadness and other emotions in short burst, and in between we get a bit of a break, maybe even a laugh or a smile. Third, not everyone grieves in the same way. Although most people cope reasonably well with the pain of loss, not everyone handles it the same way. Some confront the pain head on, mourning deeply and passionately and openly. Others are more demure. Some people prefer to keep active and distracted. Sometimes bereaved people behave in a manner that might seem a bit odd, but as long as they get by, it's usually ok. Fourth, anniversary reactions are real but they are usually not long-lasting. A longitudinal study by Catherine Carnelley, Camile Wortman and their colleagues showed that most bereaved do in fact have strong reactions to important dates related to the loss; the date of the loved one's death, for example, and often major holidays. These are called anniversary reactions. They occur frequently during the first few years after the loss and often for many years afterward. Importantly, although anniversary reactions are often quite intense, especially in the first few years, for most people they usually last no more than a few hours.

So what about the holidays? When we put this all together, it seems that most bereaved people will survive just fine. Not everyone of course. Regrettably, for some the holiday will in fact be miserable. But most bereaved people will manage. There may be a few bumpy spots; probably several periods of strong emotion-anniversary reactions --but in most cases these painful emotions probably won't ruin the holiday. And in all likelihood there will be fond memories and joyful experiences.

If I were to give advice, I would say, trust your intuitions; do what feels right. Light a candle, share stories, tell jokes, donate money, steal away for quite reflection, or maybe do nothing. It's your holiday and your grief. If you think about it, you will know best what to do; you may find a bit of sorrow but you'll also probably find joy and quite a bit of meaning.