Surviving the Holidays When You’re Grieving

The holidays can be an especially difficult time when you are grieving. The feelings around any significant loss are heightened during this time of year, whether the loss is recent or even years out. Holiday traditions and festivities serve to illuminate the absence of someone you love, making your feelings of grief and loss grow even stronger. It can be hard not to look around and see everyone else with their seemingly happy, intact families. You can’t help but feel that you are lacking in some way, that someone is missing, and that things just aren’t the same.

If you’re feeling this way and if you’re cycling through a roller coaster of emotions, know that you’re not alone. It is completely normal to feel this way. This month every single one of my clients has been experiencing a tumultuous range of emotions. And I’ve lived through it myself.

I like to believe that two things can be true at once. When you are grieving, the holidays can still be sweet and fun and nostalgic, but they can also be bitterly painful. You do not have to choose one way or the other.

My mother loved the holidays and the first year after she died was brutal – every single festivity was a reminder that she was gone and that my life was never going to be the same. I felt angry at all the people around me who didn’t even seem to realize how great their lives were and how much they had. And I felt sad that I would never again share these traditions and events with her. An otherwise fun or meaningful holiday moment often put me into a sorrowful or angry mood.

It took a while for me to be able embrace them again. Time went by before I was able to resurrect the festive rituals my mother had loved. And even more years had to pass for me to stop feeling the sweetness of enjoying a rich and complex life, and also wincing from the pain of it.

Now the holidays feel different. Even when I don’t have family around me, my daughters and I cook and decorate and laugh, and it’s not what it would have been were my parents still been alive. But it is also good and meaningful and I strive to embrace the essence of what my mother always loved about every holiday.

If this year is your first or second year without a loved one, give yourself a pass. Let it be okay to not feel like you’re in the holiday spirit. Enjoy bright moments here and there, but don’t expect the overall experience this year to be what it has been in the past. Know that it won’t always feel so painful and lonely. In time you will find ways to feel joy and cheer again, and that finding ways to evoke your loved one over the holidays will make you feel closer to them.

If your loss is an older one, or even for those whose are recent, try to think of ways to draw your loved one close this season. Either by talking about them and telling stories with family members or recreating traditions that were important to them.

Overall, be kind and compassionate with yourself during these last days of the year.