Surviving the season: Dealing with grief over the holidays

December 9, 2016 by Jamie

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

Or are you cringing? The holidays are upon us and along with the fervent shopping, singing of carols, and drinking of eggnog often come feelings of loneliness and grief. For many people the holiday season is fraught with anxiety, frustration and sadness. I see many people in my practice who dread December as others might dread a root canal. For some, it’s the financial pressure to buy the biggest and best gifts. For others the stress of traveling across the country and dealing with difficult family members is enough to put them over the edge. But the issue that cuts the deepest is probably revisiting the loss of a loved one over the holiday season.

This reawakening of grief makes sense. After all, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever you celebrate are traditionally times spent with family and loved ones. Precious memories are created during these special times and familial rituals are observed. These are often peoples’ warmest and happiest memories from childhood. But that can change dramatically after the death of a loved one. These same remembrances become rude reminders of what was and cannot be any more.

Clients talk about missing their loved ones more than usual this time of year. It’s partially those memories that create pain, but also the uncertainty of knowing how to celebrate in the midst of sadness. For some, this might bring up feelings of guilt, particularly guilt about living while a loved one no longer has the opportunity to enjoy the festivity of the season. This can be most cutting when the loved one was especially fond of this time of year. Others experience anger that they can’t share in old traditions with the departed. Confusion abounds as you try to navigate all these feelings, while also living in the chaos of holiday shopping and glitzy parties, making conversation with others who just seem merry and bright.

Whatever complicated feelings you might be experiencing this holiday season, try not to deny those emotional states. Make room for your sadness, anger, disappointment, or fear, and don’t judge yourself for having those feelings. Try talking with a close friend or therapist about what’s going on, or write about it in a journal. If you don’t make room for these complex emotions it’s possible that they will overwhelm you at a less than convenient time. Perhaps you’ve seen such a scene at an office holiday party? You don’t want to be that guy!

While you’re doing well to make space for your feelings, also realize that you don’t need to exacerbate your emotional state. There is sometimes a fine line between allowing and wallowing. It won’t serve you to to repeatedly revisit the same painful memories, perhaps complete with sad playlist and bottle of wine. Allow for the feelings to come up, acknowledge them, but then move on.

After you’ve processed memories and feelings, make it a point to do something to honor your loved one. This might mean making a donation to one of their favorite causes, doing some meaningful volunteer work, or participating in an activity they especially loved. Whatever you choose to do, do it with the intention of remembering your loved one and think of it as your “gift” to them.