Meeting the Challenges of Holiday Grief
November 20, 2020
By Melissa Flint, Psy.D., FT, CCTP
For many, the holiday season comes with great anticipation, filled with joy and love. For others—especially this year, those who have dealt with great losses—the holidays can make you feel like you are stuck between two extremes: the joy mentioned above juxtaposed against the pain, stress, and burden of grief. Balancing those two polar opposite sets of feelings can be extremely difficult. And for families, the need to parent when you are deep in grief yourself, in addition to helping your children grieve, can make the holidays seem even more overwhelming.
Remember also that grief is a much larger subject than only the physical death of a loved one. People can feel grief over many different losses: health, relationships, job or housing changes, unmet dreams or goals, our companion animals, disconnection from friends and/or family, loved ones being separated for the holidays, and so many more. Consider the different types of loss that you or your children have endured this past year. How are you going to prepare yourself to navigate the holidays in the best way possible for both you and your children?
While the grief journey is so different for each person and with each type of loss, here are a few hints to help you and your children deal with grief and stress during the holiday season:
- Know you are not alone. Grief, unfortunately, is not a respecter of time of year. We carry with us deep losses, despite the fact that our culture typically declares this to be a time of joy. We can survive the “Perfect” Holidays (those cheery ads about everything being perfect at the holidays, when you are barely even OK) by supporting one another. Do not be afraid to reach out to loved ones, friends, others in your support circle, or even a professional to help shoulder the burden this season.
- Be sure to speak about your grief. Give yourself permission to have good days, bad days—days that you want to hide in a metaphorical hole, and then those when you want to engage in the world again. It is also important to help your children give words to their grief. Even though it might be hard to hear that they are hurting, listening and being present for their journey is part of healing for the entire family.
- Know your limits as a family. The holiday season pushes us to the limit with all the added time commitments. Figure out what your limits are (physically, psychologically, spiritually, socially, financially, etc.) and do not be afraid to set boundaries to fiercely guard your well-being during the holidays. Help your kids figure out what their limits are as well. Communicate as a family about how the loss has affected you all personally, but also as a family. Be honest with everyone about what is happening in your family and ask for a holiday reprieve if it is all too much. Accepting that you, as a family, might not be able to do all the things that you have usually done is key.
- Stop the unnecessary stress. For example, do you have to do all of your usual holiday preparations, traditions, and activities? Choose those things that are true “musts” versus “likes,” and plan accordingly. Seek balance in what you do, and do not spend all your energy in one place.
- Choose your support system. Be with people who are supportive and comforting. You deserve that as you navigate grief during the holidays.
- Talk about your loved one. Even though someone has died and their physical presence is no longer with us, it does not mean that they are not still a part of who we are. Share memories, talk about their impact on your life, and what they mean to you during this holiday season.
- Plan ahead. The anxiety and anticipation that leads up to the holidays can be even more intense than the actual holiday celebration itself. Planning ahead is particularly important for children, as knowing what is going to happen can reduce their levels of anxiety. Remember to schedule your family the appropriate rest and time in between the main activities or events. As a parent, remember that if your reserve is completely spent, you cannot expect yourself to be available for your children or others. Plan for your greatest success in all situations you commit to.
- Embrace and treasure the memories of your loved one. Is there a special thing that you can anonymously do in their name to keep their presence showing up in this world? One of the most difficult things about death is the uncontrollable nature of the events. This is one small way where we can take back some control during the grief process. You get to choose how your loved one still blesses this world—a random act of kindness, paying for a grocery bill, an extra donation to a special cause, etc.
- Communicate as a family. Hold a family meeting and discuss what the holiday now means for each member. Ask one another what you each need for support, and how you can help one another (privacy, hugs, interaction, talking with friends). As a family, what do you want to bring forward from previous holiday traditions into the present? In addition, what new traditions make sense to start in light of the loss you have endured? Communication is key about what you each want and need, but also to set the limits about what each person feels that they can and cannot do—even little ones can help decide this for themselves.
My hope for you this holiday season is that you acknowledge that while it is different (as it should be) with your loss and the associated changes in life, this “different” does not have to be negative—it just is…well, different. We can adjust to be more successful during times of stress, and I wish you the discernment to know when to do this, along with the strength to say “yes” and “no” when you are able to do so. With these thoughts in mind, you can more successfully navigate the holidays, even in the midst of grief.
Melissa Flint, Psy.D., FT, CCTP is an Associate Professor for the Clinical Psychology Program at the Midwestern University College of Health Sciences. She maintains a private Clinical Psychology practice and is a Fellow in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement.