Tips for navigating grief during the holiday season

Hands w/ heart

December 23, 2020

By Lynne Grant, BSW, St. Peter’s Health Hospice Bereavement Coordinator and Kim Pepper, BCC, St. Peter’s Health Chaplain

For people who are grieving, the holidays are often an especially difficult time of year. Even more so now as we navigate grief amidst a pandemic. We are surrounded by lights, decorations, music, as well as wishes for good cheer and the happiest of holidays. Yet, if someone in your life has died and you are missing someone either for the first time, or another year among many, the holidays can be a time of sadness, anxiety, even isolation. Often those who are grieving say that they wish they could skip over all of the celebration and turn the calendar to January 2.

We grieve because we loved. The holidays can intensify grief we are already experiencing, or rekindle grief that has softened. While we are encouraged to join in the holiday celebrations the sounds, smells and tastes trigger memories of the person who died, intensifying the longing that the person could be here with us.

Although the grief process is unique to each one of us, and no one strategy will work for everyone, here are some guidelines to help navigate this season.

Be open about your grief. Not talking about your grief does not make it go away. Sharing with someone you trust, who can listen and sit with you in your grief, will help you to feel understood, less isolated, and can aid in healing.

Be with people you find supportive and comforting. Identify the people around you who understand that the holiday season intensifies your feelings of loss and sadness, and allow you to talk about what you are experiencing. Find the people who meet you where you are and can be present with you. Try to be with those who sustain, nourish, and comfort you.

Be tolerant with not functioning as you normally do during the holiday season. Grief manifests itself in body, mind and spirit. Even under normal circumstances, grief can cause you to feel fatigued and as if you are not thinking as sharply as you normally do, and grief can intensify these experiences. Pay attention to your energy level, and be open to operating at a lower level of efficiency.

Inventory your holiday traditions. Eliminate unnecessary stresses on yourself to do everything the way you have always done it. Reflect on what is necessary and what is important to you and your family. Remember, you are just planning for this year. Traditions can always be reintroduced next year or beyond, when they may feel more comfortable for you.

Do whatever makes the holidays more meaningful and more bearable for you. Family and friends who have the best of intentions may try to prescribe what you should do or not do during the holiday season or on the holiday itself. Discuss your plans with someone you trust who will support the decisions you make. Talking about your plans often helps clarify what it is you want to do during the holidays. As you become aware of your needs, share them with your friends and family.

Plan ahead for how you will spend the day of the celebration. Consider your energy level and how you might be feeling physically and emotionally on the holiday itself. If you are not up for a long day, consider joining (safely) with a small group of family or friends for dinner and going home before dessert, or joining them just for dessert. Please follow all recommended safety precautions if you do choose to gather with people outside your household. If you want peace and quiet in your own space for the entire day, do it. Allow for flexibility, and give yourself permission to change your plans even at the last moment, as you feel you need to.

Include the person’s name who has died in your conversations. When other people sense that you are able to talk about the person, it may help them to know that you need to remember the joy the loved one brought to your life. Others may also want to talk about your loved one, but refrain from doing so thinking they are protecting you. Talking about your loved one gives them permission to talk about the person, too.

Last, but certainly not least, take care of yourself. Create space to honor your grief and pain. Do whatever helps with this: talk, cry, write, look at photos, play music, hike, dance, bake, watch a movie that will make you laugh or cry, read, pray, meditate. Remember, it is OK to cry. Tears are a natural part of mourning and may come unexpectedly. Lean into others. Lean into your spirituality and those beliefs and practices which bring you comfort, peace, and hope,

Above all, be unfailingly kind to yourself and patient with yourself, and surround yourself with care and compassion.