Coping With Grief and Loss During the Holidays

When Renee, a 73-year-old woman, first came into therapy, her face looked pallid and drawn. She had lost her husband seven months earlier. Her grief was palpable when she told me how the holidays were making her loss harder to bear.

Coping With Grief and Loss During the Holidays
Markus Spiske

Grief and Loss Is Especially Hard Over the Holidays

As Renee and I talked, she articulated something I often hear from people dealing with a major loss over the holidays. Everything is festive, with an emphasis on celebration, time with family and friends, gifts and parties, but people grieving from a major loss can feel alone and empty. All the festive decorations are making me sadder, Renee said. I’m supposed to feel joyful but it’s the furthest thing from my mind. For Renee, her inner world felt vastly different from her outer world.

This feeling of sadness and alienation gets even worse when someone feels they have to act joyfully, instead of being allowed to grieve. Loving family and friends give gentle nudges that are well-intentioned but overlook the inner experience of the bereaved. Come with us; you have to get out. You’ll feel better if you go. Statements like this often cause people to feel even more alone in their distress.

The important thing to realize is that sometimes people aren’t able to shrug it off and feel better. Sometimes they want someone to understand that they feel so devastated it hurts to move forward. Sometimes they just want someone to sit with them in their grief, to understand and be a supportive presence without offering advice about moving on.

Everyone’s Grief Process Is Different

People during the holidays should not feel pressured to make other people happy. Yet, I often hear stories where the bereaved person ends up going to festivities that sometimes make them feel worse, just because loved ones ask it of them.

Renee described such a dilemma at our second session. Every year her daughter held a big holiday dinner that included family and friends. However, this year Renee wanted to keep it more intimate, with just the immediate family. She felt it would be most soothing to only be with family members who shared in their grief.

However, her daughter’s way of dealing with her grief and loss differed from Renee’s, and a disagreement ensued. Her daughter felt that acting normal would make the loss easier to bear. Tears welled in Renee’s eyes as she told me how she felt guilty for not wanting to participate in a larger gathering.

All The “Firsts” Are Hard

Following a loss, we feel increased grief every time there is a “first” without that person — the first vacation, the first birthday, the first holiday, even the first trip to the grocery store. The memories of the beloved, and their absence, can be overwhelming. As I mentioned earlier, the holidays are a particularly hard “first,” because it feels like everyone else is celebrating while the bereaved is experiencing enormous grief.

Renee and I discussed how it was normal for her to feel increased sadness over the holidays. It comforted her to know her feelings weren’t unusual. She recognized it was a fragile time for her, and that she needed to do what she could to minimize her distress.

Renee explained to her daughter that she couldn’t handle a big celebration. A compromise was reached. Renee would spend Christmas Eve with a close friend (which I was pleased to hear, because being alone isn’t a good idea), then she would spend Christmas Day with her daughter, son-in-law and her grandkids.

How to Cope with the Holidays After a Major Loss

If you’ve suffered a major loss, it’s important to think about what is going to make you feel better. This may mean breaking yearly traditions. Equally important, if you know someone who is grieving, make sure you hear what they need to make this time easier. Instead of trying to maintain normal traditions, it’s essential to focus on anything that can help reduce stress and distress, so you can get through this trying time.

If you’re grieving, be honest with yourself about what you need. If someone close to you is grieving, listen to what they need.

Editor’s note: Renee’s name was changed to protect her anonymity.

About the Writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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