Survival Strategies for Coping with Holiday Grief

Suggestions for dealing with loss during the holiday season

Road sign reading Holidays Ahead
No matter when a death occurs, holidays often prove challenging for surviving loved ones. Photo © DNY59/E+/Getty Images

If you have lost a loved one, you might be wondering how to cope with your grief during an upcoming holiday. This article offers several strategies to help you cope with grief and loss during the holidays (or at any time of year).

Grief Survival Strategies

With the first fallen leaf of autumn, we begin to anticipate the holidays ahead. Our senses are acute and take in everything: the smell of turkey roasting and freshly baked pies; the holiday songs playing on the radio; the sound of laughter from our loved ones who have gathered together.

But for those dealing with an illness, grief or the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be a time of sadness, pain, anger or dread.

The ebb and flow of grief can overwhelm us with waves of memories -- particularly during Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grief will also magnify the stress that is often already a part of the holidays. How do we begin to fill the emptiness we feel when it seems that everyone else is overflowing with joy? Here are some strategies you can employ:

Offer Yourself Some Grace

The best thing you can do during this holiday season is be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is your feeling. Don’t fall prey to the belief that you have to feel a certain way or do certain things in order for your holiday to be “normal.” If you feel sad, then allow the tears to come; if you feel angry, then allow yourself to vent some steam.

Be Kind to Yourself

Get the rest and nourishment you need, and don’t take on any more than you can handle.

If you need to be alone, then honor that. If you crave the company and affection of others, then seek it out. Do whatever feels right to you during this difficult time.

Ask For and Accept Help

The holiday season is no time to feign strength and independence when you're grieving a death. You will need the help and support of others to get through, so don’t feel as if you are a burden.

People generally receive satisfaction and even joy from helping those they care about.

Following a death, unfortunately, people often desire to help but simply don’t know how. This is the time for you to speak up and make your needs known. If you need someone to help you prepare meals, shop or decorate, then tell them so. They will be delighted to feel like they are helping you in some way.

The same holds true for your emotional needs. Friends and family members might feel uncomfortable when it comes to talking about your grief. They might think that you don’t want to talk about it and don’t want to be reminded of your pain. Again, you will have to tell your loved ones the best way that they can help you. If you want to talk about what you’re going through, or you just need a shoulder to cry on, then let your loved ones know.

Find Support

Sharing your feelings is often the best way to get through them, so you will need people you can talk to. Friends and relatives can be a great support during times of grief, but they might be coping with their own feelings of grief, or so immersed in the business of the holidays, that they cannot offer you the support you need.

Therefore, you should look for a grief-support group if you cannot find enough support from your family members and friends. You can search online or check with local churches, community centers, funeral homes or a hospice to find a group that suits you. Support-group members often make friends that end up being a source of comfort and care for many years to come.

Make a Difference

Most people like to help others in large or small ways during the holiday season. Dropping our change in a charity basket, purchasing a gift for a needy child or donating to a favorite organization can help us feel like we are contributing to the greater good. Likewise, helping improve the lives of others despite the pain of grief can help take the focus off yourself and your loss. Volunteering at a nursing home, hospital, hospice, children’s shelter or soup kitchen -- or finding a way to help another family member or friend -- can prove cathartic and healing.

Stop Making Comparisons

It’s easy to see other people or families enjoying holiday festivities and compare their experience to what you feel during this difficult time -- often with you coming out lacking in some fashion. Keep in mind that the holidays are stressful for most people and are rarely the "magical" gatherings depicted in greeting cards, movies or on television. Try to embrace what you have rather than compare it to what you think others have.

Remember: You Will Survive

As difficult as it might feel to believe right now, you will survive. You will make it through the holidays in one piece. Because of your grief, this holiday might prove the most difficult you will ever experience, but you will get through it and come out on the other side stronger than before. You don’t have to enjoy the holidays. In fact, you don’t even have to go through the motions of pretending to enjoy the festivities.

That said, it’s also just fine to have a good time in spite of your grief. If happiness slips through your window of grief, allow it to happen and enjoy it. You won’t be doing your loved one an injustice by feeling joyous. The best gift you can give anyone you love, even someone you have lost, is that of being true to yourself and living your life to the fullest as you adjust to the loss.

Edited and updated by Chris Raymond, February 28, 2016.

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When the Holidays Hurt
How to Survive Christmas Holiday Grief
How to Survive Thanksgiving Holiday Grief
How to Survive Valentine's Day Grief

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