Grief During the Holidays
Everywhere you look right now you’ll see smiling faces, joyful decor, and reminders to give to those less fortunate, remember hope, and share more time with those you love. As much as these are good things that are true and lovely, this season can be emotionally draining for those that have suffered the death of a loved one or ones. Whether your loss has occurred this year, or ten years before, the holidays have a special way of bringing the memory of those we are missing into unavoidable view.
Grief is as unique to each individual as the person(s) we are missing were unique unto themselves. One explanation of grief likens the experience to an “emotional withdrawal.” It’s not hard to imagine this to be the truth.
The recliner that hasn’t been warmed with the familiar body of former years.
The dining chair without the familiar face in its spot.
The traditional dish that tastes similar but is missing the key ingredient of love only its preparer could make perfectly.
There is a gap in what we have had–what we would prefer–and what we are experiencing in the present.
Grief does not exist without a way forward, however. While there is no way to magically erase the symptoms of grief, below are practical reminders and truths for both the bereaved and those supporting the bereaved to move through this holiday season.
For the one who is grieving
Grief is fluid.
Think of grief like waves on the beach. Make room for it to flow in and be present, and then allow it to recede. Some waves will feel stronger than others, but they do all pass.
Grief is different for everyone.
If you find yourself talking out loud or to yourself about your grief and you use the word “should,” you might need to revisit what you’re telling yourself. Your emotions are valid regardless of how long it’s been, how your loved one passed, or how others (or you, yourself) expect you to be. Grief is not always (read: rarely) predictable.
You’re allowed to have positive emotions, too.
It can be a weird tension to both be grieving and enjoying the present moment. Happiness and moments of peace do not detract from your love of your lost one nor the fact you are still grieving their death. You’re allowed to have both.
Tip: Both on your own and with those with whom you are celebrating, explore how you might honor/memorialize your passed loved one during the holiday season. Be intentional about giving yourself and your family time to remember well together.
For those supporting the bereaved
Support all emotions as they come.
Avoid negating emotions with platitudes (They’re in a better place; Look at what you still have; etc.). Best said by Sheila Walsh, Bible teacher and author, sometimes people need to “sit in the truth of the moment before rushing to the hope of tomorrow (1).” Facing emotions helps people move through grief much more effectively than suppression or avoidance.
Talk about the person that passed.
Nothing is worse than an ‘elephant in the room’. Be open to conversation. Listen more than you speak. You can even get it started by saying something like, “I know this time of year must be hard without [name]. I just want you to know I’m here to talk about him/her if you want. We don’t have to, but I am willing if you find that you’d like to.”
Offer functional support where possible.
Often grief, especially acute grief, can impair one’s ability to remember and perform daily tasks as well as usual. Lighten the daily load where you can so the bereaved can attend to their emotional load. This may look like cleaning, cooking, walking their pets, etc.
Tip: It’s really tempting to want to help people be happy in the moment by pointing out positives, avoiding sad conversations, and pushing away discomfort. These actions tend to backfire, though, either in making you seem like someone the bereaved cannot emotionally trust or inadvertently shaming the bereaved for their emotions. Remember: shame, fear, and loneliness cannot survive in true community.
In conclusion, the holidays for many won’t look like they once did. The task of grief in the holiday season, and all of life really, is to find where those passed still fit in our emotional lives in a way that allows us to live and continue to move through the rest of life (2).
Though the tips here are helpful, please remember grief is no simple task. If you or someone you love are finding it difficult to navigate this season in light of your loss, we have counselors ready to help you. Please contact ETCG at 903-503-0490 today, or fill out our online “Contact Us” form at etxcounseling.com.
Walsh, Sheila. (2018). In the middle of the mess: Strength for this beautiful, Broken Life. THOMAS NELSON PUB.
Worden, J. W. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy, fifth edition: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer Publishing Company.