By Miranda Wichelns, licensed clinical social worker and certified grief counselor at CHOC
Even under the best of circumstances, the holiday season can be draining and overwhelming. There are social obligations, many extra activities, tasks, decisions, financial purchases, and expectations we place on ourselves, or which we perceive others place on us. Trying to honor and maintain family or societal traditions can weigh heavily on us too.
When we are experiencing grief, the holiday season can amplify our emotional pain. We may notice that we feel lonelier in our loss and that our grief is more pervasive or all encompassing. This may be especially true if the social obligations, activities, tasks, and traditions of the season were shared with the partner or parent who died or centered around the joy of the child who died. Social media, advertisements, and decorations can be ever-present and very triggering.
Holiday-time coping techniques for grief
Here are some ideas to consider while navigating the holiday season during grief. As with all grief support, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, but it is my hope that you may find something here that speaks to you and is helpful or comforting.
Allow yourself to only do what feels most right
During the holiday season, there may be tasks, activities, or gatherings which feel overwhelming or repulsive when you consider or anticipate them. This is normal and perfectly okay. Have grace with yourself for feeling this way, even if it does not seem socially acceptable or something that you “should” feel. Consider declining to attend or participate in certain tasks or events this year. Next year, or later down the road, you may feel differently and can reintegrate these events or activities into your holiday calendar once again; the way you navigate the holiday season this year does not mean this is what will always feel right to you in the future.
If, on the other hand, certain holiday activities feel like they might be positive distractions, give them a try! You do not have to do everything or go “all out,” but there might be comforting people who you do want to connect with, or certain traditions, foods or tasks which do feel right this year.
Be gentle with yourself. You, your life and the holidays may feel vastly different in grief. You may find that you have limitations that you didn’t have before- whether physically or emotionally.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel
If you are in a lot of pain related to your grief, try not to add to your distress by pressuring yourself to “get in the holiday spirit” or worrying that you should bottle up your feelings to avoid feeling like a “downer” to others. Feelings of sadness, anger, hurt and a lack of desire to participate in festive social activities are very normal in grief. Likewise, if you are feeling moments of joy, please try not to feel guilty that you “should be grieving.” Ups and downs are inevitable and often unpredictable in grief. Try to be compassionate with yourself however you feel in this moment.
Anticipation of the holiday season and its events and activities is often more distressing and anxiety-provoking than when we are actually going through them. Thus, it can be helpful to create a plan for how to approach these situations ahead of time.
One way to do this is to come up with a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C so that you have a strategy for however you feel. For example, if it feels right to you to attend a family gathering, your Plan A may be to attend the whole event, your plan B may be to attend for part of the event, and your Plan C may be to bring something to contribute and then bow out, or to give yourself permission to not attend at all. Or, if it feels right to engage in a familiar holiday tradition, your Plan A may be to do so; your Plan B if this is too triggering may be to do an aspect of the activity which is comforting to you, and omit other parts; and your Plan C may be to do another, new activity which is not laden with triggering memories, such as a getaway to a new destination or volunteering to serve food to those in need.
Simply having positive activities on the calendar to anticipate can be comforting. Just because they’re on the schedule doesn’t mean you have to do them, but they are there if they feel right. Having gently-held plans can help you feel more proactive and less reactive. Rather than contemplating how you will react or endure various dates, milestones or holidays in your grief, you can focus your gaze on the plans that you have chosen. You may want to be tactful when deciding what to put on your calendar so as not to over-commit yourself and in order to prioritize only what feels most right.
Another way to strategize is to let people know what you need and what you are planning to do. For example, you can let the host of a holiday event know that you may need to leave early if it feels like the activity is too much, or you may ask a friend to attend with you for support.
You may wish to strategize your responses to certain questions or prevalent social greetings. For example, hearing “Happy New Year” may feel acutely painful, repulsive or like a command that you just cannot execute. You may want to formulate a response ahead of time that feels right to you. For example, “That’s hard for me to feel this year, but I appreciate how much you care, and I’m grateful for your kind sentiment.”
Lastly, consider that you may also need strategies not just for yourself, but as a family. It is important to share, and to hear, all family members’ needs and preferences in their grief, what aspects of the holidays each would like to prioritize or minimize this year, and to promote feeling connected and unified as a family unit during this sensitive and challenging time.
Lean into support
You have probably found that in your family, friend group and other communities that you are part of, there are individuals who are more comforting or “safer” in your grief and others who you feel less close with at this time. Continue to reach out to and lean on your tribe.
You may also want to seek out professional support with a therapist or join a grief support group in-person or virtually. Inquire about CHOC bereavement groups here.
Focus on others
Sometimes channeling the pain of our grief into good can be grounding and comforting. It can be a positive distraction from our inner world to shift our focus, at times, to others and what we can do for them. For example, it might be soothing to invite a friend or acquaintance for Thanksgiving who does not have local family or may lack resources.
Some holiday events may be particularly special for or geared towards children; focusing on seeing these events through their eyes may be a pleasant distraction. (Though if it is not, or if you feel you’ve reached your limit, allow yourself to bow out.) Helping those in need can be a way to anchor yourself emotionally and feel a sense of purpose in an overwhelming time.
Allow yourself to rest
Your time, energy and mental bandwidth are precious, finite resources, and grief can be exhausting. This is another reason to try to prioritize certain events, activities or people and not over-commit. Ask for help (and allow those who offer help to do so). There may be tasks that you can delegate so your days are a little easier and so you have some room to breathe. For example, caring friends can drop off meals, clean your home, babysit or take your car in for maintenance. Accepting help so that you can rest or keep your head above water during your grief is vital for your self-care.
Honor your loved one
This, too, should be guided by what feels most right to you. You may wish to visit the cemetery or a special place that your loved one enjoyed. You may want to bake, cook, or order one of their favorite dishes. You can set a place for them at the table, perhaps with a picture or a candle. You may want to make a donation in their name to a charity or do something that upholds their values. Honor them, and your grief and love, by sharing memories — in conversation, in correspondence, via social media, etc.
I hope that reflecting on these ideas will be helpful as you navigate the holiday season this year while honoring and coexisting with your grief. My heart goes out to you as you do the best you can, one step at a time.
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