How to Cope With Grief During the Holidays — MyWellbeing

Coping with grief and loss is never easy, and it can be especially hard during the holidays. Family traditions remind us of the ones we have lost, new memories are made without our loved ones there, and rituals that once seemed familiar can feel painfully different when we are missing people, places, and things that we care about. And this year is even harder than most.

“This year, you may experience feelings of grief and loss in unexpected ways,” said Shannon Gunnip, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Perhaps as you reflect on 2020 this holiday season, you grieve for a job that you lost, big plans that were canceled, or relationships that have become distant.”

“The past year has been challenging for all of us in ways we never anticipated, and it’s totally normal and valid to feel sadness, disappointment, and grief around these events,” she said. “Allow yourself space to feel these feelings without shame or self-judgement.”

Although it’s never easy, we’re here to help. Here are some ways to cope with grief and loss with guidance and insight from our community of therapists.

Realize that our feelings around grief can be complicated

We often think of grief as a response to a loss of a loved one, but grief is a completely normal response to loss during or after a disaster or other traumatic event—and it’s something many of us are feeling during COVID-19. Grief can happen in response to loss of life, as well as to drastic changes to daily routines and ways of life that usually bring us comfort and a feeling of stability.

“While we tend to associate grief with tangible experiences such as death or a breakup, feeling loss over something you never had, like an attentive parent, a childhood, or a partner, can feel just as acute,” said Alyssa Ashenfarb, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “If you’re having a hard time identifying what you’re feeling loss and sadness about during the holidays, write down whatever comes to mind, and practice being gentle with yourself and the grief that you feel.”

It’s hard, but developing self awareness around your thoughts and feelings and their impact on you—emotionally, mentally, and physically—can start to provide you with some clarity that can help you take care of yourself.

“It’s very common for anyone experiencing a loss or setback to then develop self-critical feelings or thoughts,” said Charles Rosen, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “It’s helpful if you can become aware of these sometimes ‘half-conscious’ self-critical thoughts and realize that they are mostly not rational ones. They have a connection to having had a setback or loss.”

Due to the current state of the world, many of us are experiencing grief in ways that are new to us: individual, collective, anticipatory, and more. It’s complex, but there are still ways to cope.

“Many holidays, especially the winter ones, stir not just feelings of loss, grief, and loneliness, but feelings of anger and alienation at ongoing structural violence,” said Sarah Hartzell, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “As I write this reflection, living and working in Lenape territory, I encourage folks to build their own traditions and rituals as a way to have meaningful and healthy connections around holidays, and to engage in conversations and the work of justice that we may be yearning for. Most simply: do something that matters to you most, spend time with the people who treat you well (distantly as needed this year), eat what feels good to your body.”

Pay attention to the physical symptoms of grief

“Grief comes in waves, and for those dealing with any kind of grief, the holidays feel like drowning in the ocean,” said Ana Lucia Degel, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Grief is not only processed through emotions and thoughts, but also through the body.”

Grief can be a powerful feeling that expresses itself in physical symptoms—in fact, one study found that two thirds of participants who were grieving felt physical symptoms. Although it can feel incredibly overwhelming, there are things you can do to cope.

“One simple practice you can do as you notice these waves is to place your hand gently on your heart,” Ana Lucia said. “This practice both regulates the body’s stress response and also helps attend to our basic need for connection—connecting to ourselves, to those we love, and to those we’ve lost. During a time of such physical and emotional isolation from others, this practice is particularly important.”

It’s important to take care of yourself when you’re grieving—and always

“Take really good care of yourself,” said Rebecca Gerstein, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Grief is exhausting and the holidays can bring up a lot. Clients often report that the days and weeks leading up to a holiday are harder than the actual day, so start taking extra good care of yourself a few weeks in advance of any holiday or anniversary.”

Having a preventative self care practice can help. If you can, figure out what coping strategies and acts of self care work best for you and weave them into your routine before times get tough so they will be ready for you when you need them. 

“Maintain a strong self care practice!” agreed Shannon. “If the holidays are usually a tough season for you, find time to engage in activities that bring you peace. Take some time off from work, schedule an extra session with your therapist if necessary, and surround yourself with loved ones whose company you enjoy.”

You are allowed to take time for yourself, time to grieve, and time to be with (in person or virtually) people you love and who bring you joy. So many of us power through grief, sadness, and pain, thinking that it would be better to just get back to “normal,” but grief is a normal part of life, so treat yourself with kindness and compassion and focus on what is best for you.

“The most important thing to do this holiday season is take care of our needs and wants and not focus on what others expect,” said Nagla Radwan, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “This could translate into no cooking, not getting together—not even on Zoom. Allow and validate your feelings. Give them a name, find where in your body you are experiencing those feelings. Then ask yourself what do you need—like a hug, sleep, warm shower—and give it to yourself.”

Share stories and create new rituals or find ways to honor the memory of loved ones you have lost

Many members of our therapist community shared that either amending old rituals or creating new ones is a helpful way to cope with grief and loss, especially during the holidays.

“Holiday time inevitably brings up memories of past holidays, both recent past and distant past,” said Carole Geithner, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “In turn, those memories often bring up memories of loved ones who are no longer living. In 2020, we add in the loved ones we can’t see in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It helps to come up with a plan rather than trying to ignore the holidays completely or letting certain dates sneak up on you.”

“That plan might mean finding a way to honor the memory of the loved one who died, which could take the form of making a recipe they loved or made for you, or setting a place for them at the table,” Carole said. “It might mean sharing memories of that loved person, or designing a ritual that has some meaning for you, like lighting a candle or creating something that somehow connects you to them, to their ‘absent presence’.”

In my family, we often spend the holidays with my aunt, but the year she passed away, we ended up going to Mexico City for Christmas. When we signed up for a boat tour, my mother spotted a boat with her name—Patricia—so we chose that one to feel like she was with us. For some of us, it seemed silly at first, and it took time to sink in and provide a sense of comfort, but that’s okay. The process is different for everyone.

“Create a new ritual that allows you to mourn,” said Emily Brackman, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Instead of bypassing this critical part of the healing process because of this year’s social isolation and distance, consider ways you can honor the memory and traditions that matter most to you. Share a story about your loss with a friend, go through an old photo album, write a letter to someone you are missing, or ask a shared person in your life to tell you a little bit about their relationship with the person you’ve lost.”

Grief, memories, and coping strategies are different for everyone, and that’s okay

There are so many ways to remember the ones you have lost. My aunt loved Bob Marley and her house was filled with his music as she passed away. Not only does it remind me of her, it reminds me of my childhood, and it reminds me of Florida where I grew up and no longer live, but would return to for the holidays. I doubt Bob Marley reminds many people of Christmas, but that’s what his music does for me. It doesn’t matter how unique your process is; do what matters most to you. 

“Honor the life and legacy of your loved one,” said Justin Yong, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Write down memories and stories about your loved one to share with friends and family. Listen to their favorite holiday music. Observe the holiday traditions and visit places that were meaningful to that person. I often think about the movie Coco, where the protagonist, Miguel, learns that the dead continue to live so long as someone alive cares enough to remember them.”

Creating new traditions doesn’t mean that you’re forgetting those you have lost. It’s okay to try something new. Change is scary, especially when we’re dealing with loss, so have patience and compassion with yourself and know that there’s no right way to process.

“Find a ‘good’-bye ceremony to honor your loved one and create a new ritual for the holidays, where you can create new memories,” said Nagla. “One of my favorites is to tie traditions with novelties. For example, a traditional dish with one that never has been made before. Project how this new dish would have been perceived by the loved one and laugh or cry about it. Plant a tree in the loved one’s honor so the family can get together on special occasions and visit the tree. Write a letter sharing with your loved one what you resent, regret, and remember. Find a safe place to safely process your feelings without shame or guilt, like in therapy.”

Remember that grief is a form of love

“Too often people feel that coping with grief and loss means trying not to think or talk about their lost loved one out of fear of feeling overwhelmed by grief or fear of making others feel uncomfortable,” said Julie Iannone Pastro, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “It is important to note; grief is a form of love. Give yourself permission to think about your loved one and share stories and memories about them from holidays past with family and friends.”

You can also simply imagine that they are there with you. My aunt loved lavender, so that scent always makes me feel like she’s around me. I once bought her a Christmas gift from a lavender stall in the greenmarket in New York City, so when I pass by that stall, I also think of her.

“Communicate with those you have lost!” said Emily. “Can you imagine what your lost loved one might say about how you’re feeling these days? What would they have done to comfort you if they were still here? What did they want most for you? Even when someone is no longer physically present, you may be able to ‘tune in’ to their wisdom for guidance nonetheless.”

Include children in the grieving process

Children may express grief differently than adults and their caregivers play an important role in helping them process their grief. If possible, you can have children participate in remembrances or have them help create new rituals.

“Try to involve kids (of any age) if they are home, so that they, too, can feel a part of making it meaningful,” said Carole. “You can ask them, ‘How do you think we should include or remember your {Dad/Grandma/sibling/other loved one} in our holiday this year?’ Kids can be so creative, and they are more likely to partake if they are involved in the design and execution of a memorial ritual.”

Give yourself permission to grieve for as long as you need

“Know that no matter how long it’s been, you are entitled to grieve your loved one,” said Rebecca. “It has never been too long!”

Time doesn’t necessarily heal the pain of loss. It’s what you do with that time that matters most. Many times, we try to escape the pain, but it’s important to feel your feelings; experiencing grief and pain is part of the healing process.

“Let friends know that this is a hard time and you are going through a lot,” said Rebecca. “This may not be obvious to friends who haven’t lost someone. It’s not because you’re not special, it’s because they don’t understand (and your good friends will want to understand more!).”

Especially during the holidays, we’re bombarded by a range of emotions. Dealing with family, memories, stress, and loss all at the same time can bring up happiness, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, and more—sometimes all at once. Just as there is no right way to grieve, there is no right way to feel during the holidays, despite what commercials tell us. Experience your feelings without judgement; they’re all valid.

“Work on letting go of ideas about how you ‘should’ feel on a holiday,” said Emily. “Remind yourself that it is normal to feel sad, lonely, or afraid. Sometimes, expectations about ‘the right’ emotional state can add a layer of suffering to the pain you are already experiencing. Everyone has a ‘right’ to grieve or feel pain—no matter how it seems your losses stack up against those of others around you.”

Grief and loss are always hard, and they can be even harder during the holidays, but you don’t have to cope alone. Friends and family are good support systems, but support groups, text lines, and therapists can help as well. Above all, do what feels right to you and know that you’re exactly where you need to be, no matter how far along you are in you journey.

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