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How to deal with grief over the holidays

In April of this year, Lea lost her grandfather.

At 40, everyone told her she’d been fortunate to have her grandfather for so long. She was told to feel blessed, to be joyful that he’d spend nearly a century on this earth, that he couldn’t have lived a happier existence, and that she was lucky to have been by his bedside when he finally passed, a month after he’d been admitted to hospital.

“Logically, I knew everyone was trying to make me feel better, so I didn’t resent anyone’s kindness,” Lea shares. “Some people were just saying nice things, and others were kind of warning me that the first year is the hardest – it’s a year of firsts. Like, I’d have my first birthday without him, the first Father’s Day without him, that kind of thing.

“So it’s not like I didn’t know the holidays wouldn’t be hard. I just didn’t know they’d be this hard.”

For many people, the holidays – beginning at Thanksgiving and on to New Year’s Day – are the happiest time of year, filled with family gatherings, friendly banter, nostalgic music and the hope for new, beautiful things to come.

But when a loved one departs, it can leave those left behind feeling a sense of overwhelming grief – and during the holidays, an evidently empty chair is a painful and unavoidable reminder of what’s been lost.

“I can’t even imagine the kind of sadness people feel who lose someone around the holidays, like just before, or during,” says Lea. “My grandfather died in April, and I feel like I’m still reeling. Everyone says time heals all wounds, and maybe that’s true, but honestly, I feel like the healing process has barely begun for me.

“Christmas is bringing the pain right back, like I’m right there at his bedside saying goodbye again.”

If you’ve lost someone too, whether it’s recently or from years ago, know that it’s normal to feel unbearable pain. The holidays may trigger a response on you that you may not expect – some have said they just want to crawl into bed and sleep the season away, while others say they drown themselves in busy work so they don’t have to feel.  Whatever the holidays bring about for you, give yourself permission to feel it – because after all, you’re alive, and living means feeling a host of emotions, from joy and pleasure to sorrow and pain.

But grief, after all, is a process, and many experts recommend having a toolkit on hand to help you move through it. Here are some things you can adopt to help you cope with your grief, not only during the holiday season, but also beyond.

Allow yourself to feel. If you’re grieving, you might feel a whole set of emotions along with the sadness – guilt, anger, resentment, fear and loneliness. You may even feel confused.

“I’m not sure grief is something anyone could ever fully prepare for,” says Lea. “I’m with friends and family and I know I should cherish the moments with the people who are still here and with me, but it’s hard.”

It’s the idea that she “should” be feeling a certain way is what Lea feels is crippling her; like many mental health professionals, Lea’s therapist gently reminds her to permit herself to feel every emotion and know that it’s all a part of the healing process. “Pulling out” of events is okay – if it all feels like too much, explain to your loved ones that you just need some time and you’ll come back when you’re ready. On the other hand, if you feel too sad being alone, holding on to others is okay too – let your loved ones know you just need a lot of support right now and need to be with them a bit more than usual. Whatever it is you’re feeling, honour it, and move on and through it as you need.

Be patient. There’s no set timeline for grief. Some take a few weeks to feel back to “normal,” while others go through the process for years. Some say the first holiday without the loved one is the hardest, because it’s when those adjustments are first felt, but others say it takes years and years before it gets easier. You may also feel like your emotions are in waves; you could laugh one minute and cry another. That’s all perfectly okay. The best thing to do is to be patient and kind with yourself – and with anyone else who’s also grieving – so you can move forward positively and in a healthy way.

Take time out for yourself. The holidays can be the busiest time of year for many people. You may find yourself juggling your regular work schedule with holiday parties, family get-togethers, volunteer meetings and long line-ups at the grocery store.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who loves being busy; maybe being busy takes your mind off things. That’s great! But maybe you’re the kind of person who feels overwhelmed when there’s just so much to do, and all you want is a minute to breathe. Either way – whether you’re the person who thrives in chaos and rumble or the kind of person who cherishes and needs alone time – it’s so, so important to take time out for yourself. Do something for your wellbeing – go for a walk, listen to music, dive into a good book or go see a movie. Whatever it is that you can do to feel recharged and refueled, do it. Nourish your body with good food and your heart with self-care, whatever that might look like for you.

Cherish your memories. When you were a child, you may have had a teacher or a loved one urge you to make a memory box or a time capsule. Years later, you may have opened that time capsule and giggled at all the things you’d forgotten. This holiday season, why not try a sort of reverse capsule of memories? On pieces of paper, write down the things you most loved about the person you’ve lost, and put all of these pieces of paper in a box. Each year, you can open the box and read the memories you’ve written down, and even add to them.

Keep a journal. If the idea of writing long sentences and paragraphs scares you, don’t let it. There are all kinds of journals out there! You can keep a bullet journal (in which you write your thoughts and feelings in short, bullet form), a-line-a-day journals (in which you literally are only expected to write one line!), or of course, the traditional kind of journal, in which you can write as much as you want. It’s a wonderfully therapeutic way to process your feelings.

Attend a grief group. Sometimes, seeing so many cheerful, joyful people can be, well, anything but cheerful and joyful. Look for a grief group in your area, where you can talk with people who are going through something similar. Sometimes, it’s helpful to hear from those who may be struggling. And you never know – you might be the listening ear someone else needs.

Perform random acts of kindness. This is a proven way to feel better – sometimes all it takes is secretly paying for someone’s coffee in line, throwing money in an expired meter, or helping out at the local animal shelter. When we’re grieving, we’re typically thinking about ourselves; when we help out others, we’re thinking about them – and not about the things that make us sad.

Splurge on yourself. This is not to say you need to buy yourself a big material gift (but hey, if that makes you feel better, and doesn’t put you in any kind of financial strain which is another added stressor). Sometimes, though, treating ourselves to a little something lifts the sting, even just a bit.

Ask for help. People don’t always know what you want or need, so don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Sometimes, when we’re grieving, people can stay away, thinking we want to be left alone. Other times, we might feel suffocated by people who don’t seem to know we just need space. Whatever it is you need – whether it’s a hug, a phone call, or just some distance – ask. And if there’s no one in your life you want to or feel you can talk to, make an appointment with a therapist, who can help guide you through healing.

The holidays can be tough, especially for those of us who are grieving. For more information, or to book an appointment to talk to someone who can help, visit us at  www.hopetherapyandwellness.com

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