How to Face Grief During The Holidays
Allison always referred to herself as a “Christmas geek.” She was always the first one in her family to start putting up holiday decorations, and her husband joked that a new Christmas tree found its way to their home every year.
Then one December, Allison’s father was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Suddenly, the season that had meant so much to her was colored by grief and depression. She’d been close to her father all of her life, and even when she became an adult, she often called him every day just to chat.
Grief during the holidays can change the most beautiful season of all into a time of despair and discouragement for many.
Grief: The Unwanted Visitor
Like Allison, you may be dealing with the death of a loved one during this time of year. But grief during the holidays comes in many forms, and it’s not just limited to the loss of a beloved family member or friend.
Grief is the natural response to loss. Sometimes, the loss is a relationship, such as going through a divorce or becoming estranged from your child. Other times, the loss might be that of a dream, such as learning you’re infertile and will never have children. The loss can also come in the form of a natural disaster that destroys your home or livelihood.
In these moments, it’s hard to celebrate. Christmas just doesn’t feel as festive, and all the joy seems to be missing from your heart.
Grief Happens in Stages
Many people have heard of the five stages of grief. The idea is that during grief, you’ll walk through five distinct emotional phases. Typically, those phases look like this…
- Stage #1: Denial
- Stage #2: Anger
- Stage #3: Bargaining
- Stage #4: Depression
- Stage #5: Acceptance
However, it’s important to remember that grief is not linear. You may be at the point where you’re bargaining and think you’ve made it through the first two stages of grief. Only to find an old t-shirt in the back of your closet that reminds you of your loss. Suddenly, you’re back in denial, thinking that this awful thing couldn’t have happened to you.
The truth is that most people cycle through the stages of grief several times and in a different order each time. That means no one person’s way of grieving will look exactly like yours (nor should it).
Grief Comes in Waves
This is important to remember. You might have moments or even hours and days where you feel OK. You might feel like your life is normal and experience brief blips of happiness and joy.
But the moment these feelings pass, you’re once again overwhelmed by sorrow. This is completely normal. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you find a brief moment of joy in the middle of grieving a loved one or coming to terms with something horrible.
Grief often comes in waves. You have a deep, overpowering one, then another, and another. But eventually, these waves begin to stretch further and further apart as time goes on.
Grief Is Unpredictable
Certain sounds, sights, or smells may trigger a fresh wave of grief for you. Paying attention to what those triggers are can help you learn to navigate them.
For example, you might be watching a movie where the main character is in the hospital and be reminded of the stillbirth of your first child. You may feel the trauma, shock, and pain all over again.
When you encounter a trigger, you don’t have to run from it or avoid it. Instead, acknowledge your emotions and express them. You might want to cry, pray, or scream. Do whatever feels right at the moment.
Understand that grief can be a difficult journey, even during the best of times. But grief during the holidays can make it seem especially sharp. That’s normal and to be expected. The important thing is to be kind to yourself right now.
Take Care of Yourself
Caring for yourself may not be high on your priority list if you deal with grief during the holidays. You may already feel overwhelmed by everything you need to do, and adding one more task may not seem possible.
But if anything, you need extra care when you’re grieving. It’s not selfish or wrong to take time out for self-care. It’s essential that you nurture your mind, body, and spirit. Here are a few simple ways you can do that…
Eat a Nutritious Meal
Sometimes, people that are grieving have difficulty finding joy in anything. You may not like your favorite meals and snacks right now. They may taste weird to you, or you may find you just can’t enjoy them. This is common, so don’t be alarmed if it happens to you. As you work through your grief, your normal appetite will eventually return.
Do A Creative Activity
Being creative can help you release strong emotions. You might like to try adult coloring, knitting, or jewelry making. Don’t get discouraged if you try one activity and find you don’t enjoy it. You may have to try several activities before discovering the best one for you.
Sit back and let someone else care for you. Take a spa day, get a massage or a pedicure. Hire a cleaning service to scrub your home from top to bottom. Get a shampoo and haircut at your local beauty salon. Go out to your favorite restaurant and order dinner for yourself.
Exercise can boost endorphins and make you feel better. If you think you’re up to exercising, try a gentle activity. Remember, your body is still under significant stress, so go easy on yourself. Some suitable exercise activities include yoga, walking, or swimming.
Understand that Doubts Are Normal
Grief can cause you to question your entire belief system. Maybe you felt you received a sign from God that your loved one would be healed, but now, they’re gone.
Maybe you thought marriage was supposed to be for life, but now you’re in the middle of a divorce. Perhaps you thought you’d never be a victim of a violent crime if you did the right things.
Don’t struggle with your doubts alone. Reach out to a trusted friend or a spiritual leader to share your feelings. The other person may not have any answers that can comfort you. But having space to voice your doubts is important for your healing.
Listen to Your Body
When you’re grieving, your routine is disrupted. You may not be sleeping as much or sleeping more than usual. You may be eating more or less than you typically do. You might be working more or finding yourself working fewer hours.
You must honor your body during this time. If you need to nap in the middle of the day, don’t feel guilty. If you need to turn off your smartphone and watch movies all day, do it. Take time to care for yourself.
If you are experiencing grief during the holidays, don’t forget to take time for you. Be kind to yourself and look after your mind and body as if you were caring for a hurting friend.
Let Yourself Heal
It was a December afternoon when Sarah watched her husband being wheeled into surgery. He was headed for a routine procedure to remove his tonsils. “We’d only been married five months at that point. We were newlyweds, and I was still learning so much about him.”
But Sarah’s husband never left the hospital that day. Instead, the anesthesiologist made a mistake, giving him too much medication. He didn’t wake up from the surgery.
In the coming days, Sarah felt broken. “Everyone told me just to forgive the anesthesiologist who did this. I got a lot of pressure to move on from other people. One person told me I was a horrible person if I didn’t forgive.”
Then came the day Mary showed up in Sarah’s life. She was a widow from a local church who often reached out to other widows.
Sarah shared her story, crying through parts of it. “How am I supposed to forgive?” She whispered.
Mary squeezed the woman’s shoulder, “Right now, your only job is to grieve. You need to process what you’re feeling. All of the sadness, rage, and pain. Let it come.”
Sometimes, those who are grieving receive the message that they should “just forgive” if someone else is at fault for their loss, but that advice can stunt the grieving process.
“It only compounds loss,” Mary explains. “So now, we have someone who’s grieving, and they feel this guilt and sense of isolation added with it. Many people don’t realize this, but Jesus grieved in the Garden of Gethsemane. Grieving is an important part of the healing process.”
You must be patient with yourself during the healing process. Some people think grief is something they should just “bounce back” from. While it would be great if it were that simple, grief is not like stubbing your toe. The pain lasts far longer and goes much deeper.
It’s not uncommon to think you’ve grieved and you’re done. You imagine you’re through the worst of it, then something crops up, and you feel the loss all over again as if it were day one of your grief.
Understand that grief is not a destination. It’s not an exotic locale that you visit only once. Grief is a journey that can be ongoing for months, years, or even decades, depending on what you’ve lost.
Create New Traditions
Holiday traditions can give you a feeling of peace and safety. But your normal traditions may not be possible anymore when you’ve recently lost a loved one or are experiencing grief during the holidays. That’s where creating new traditions can be helpful.
Allison and her father had a habit of singing Christmas carols every December. Since her father was no longer with her, her husband volunteered to carry on the tradition with her.
But Allison decided she’d rather visit the veteran’s hospital that year to honor her father’s military service. It was a different tradition that would honor her father without reminding her of the pain of her loss.
Don't be hard on yourself if you decide you don’t want or can’t do a certain tradition. But do try to find something to replace it with. A new tradition can give you something to look forward to and a sense that life is returning to normal.
It’s important to understand that there’s no quick fix or escape from grief. The only way to get to the other side is to go through the heartache. But you don’t have to do that alone. Reach out to caring, concerned members of your community, and let them comfort you through this difficult time.
Don’t Be Alone in Your Grief During The Holidays
Like Allison, you may be the one in charge of preparations for the holidays. This can naturally be difficult, but when you factor in the weight of grief during the holidays, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and distressed.
Instead of thinking it all rests on your shoulders, share the burdens of your celebration with others. Perhaps your in-laws could handle the decorations while your sister plans the menu. Your spouse can shop for the groceries while you buy the gifts.
Don’t feel bad about delegating during the holidays. It’s OK to need help, especially when walking through a season of grief.
Listen for Dread
Are there holiday traditions that you don’t enjoy? Maybe you love decorating the tree, but you really hate wrapping the gifts. Perhaps you hate planning the Christmas dinner menu, but you enjoy the grocery shopping.
Don’t be afraid to swap tasks with family members and friends. When you do this, you let those who are naturally gifted shine. You allow them to be the hands and feet of Jesus, as they were designed to do.
Ask for Support
You don’t have to hide out and cry alone. We are created for community, and we thrive when we receive the support we need. But if no one knows about your loss, they can’t be there for you during this difficult time.
Tell a trusted friend or a family member about what you’re going through. You might say, “This holiday is difficult for me because I lost (name your loss). So right now, I feel (emotion you wish to express).”
Tell People What You Need
Although your family and friends may long to support you, they may not know how to do it. They might be clueless about how to help and offer only trite suggestions or painful advice.
You can guide them through the process by telling those you love what you need. For example, you might say, “Before he died, Dave and I had date nights on Fridays. Would you be willing to get together on Friday nights with me to do something fun?”
Asking for help can be difficult if you’re not used to doing it. But God created us to bear the burdens of those around us. When you allow others to care for you, you’re allowing others to see a beautiful example of how the church cares for its own.
Grace and peace,