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Managing Grief During the Holidays

by Laura Nalin, MA, P-LPC, CADC

The ebb and flow of grief can feel all consuming no matter how long it has been without a loved one. Unfortunately, we cannot press pause during the holidays, and the emotions that arise can feel complicated and confusing for those grieving. Celebrating and feeling a sense of joy during the holiday season without a loved one, or loved ones, can feel selfish; others may feel a sense of guilt following for being able to participate with ease. For some, the pain of the loss of a loved one during these times can feel incapacitating and lead them to want to isolate. Others may feel a sense of sadness, but ultimately have joy in knowing their loved ones are no longer in pain. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and it impacts everyone differently.

As we are always ever-evolving as humans, our emotions and experiences with grief are as well. The holiday season can be triggering for some, as family systems displayed on television may remind them of what they no longer have, songs may evoke memories of their loved one(s), or the stark reminder that a certain meal they love will never be cooked the same can send some into an emotional tailspin. I know for me, the first holidays without loved ones who have passed were challenging, some more than others.

If you’re trying to navigate your emotions during the holiday season, know that it is okay to move through them however you feel best. Here are some tips for managing grief during the holidays:

Set boundaries with yourself and others

Some events or gatherings may be more activating than others. Take a mental note of your needs and wants and continue to check in with yourself about what you can and cannot handle. It’s okay to have limitations, and you may not be ready to fully engage - that’s okay! Do what feels right for you.

Prepare yourself mentally

Some emotions you may experience during this time might feel more overwhelming than other periods throughout the year. You may find yourself in the midst of inner conflict, but remember that it is okay to celebrate this season while still missing your loved one. Both things can exist at the same time. By bringing awareness to your unique emotions and experiences along with preparing yourself for encountering any number of feelings, you will be setting yourself up for success.

Don’t numb

It may feel tempting to lean into substances during this time, but numbing out with extra drinks or other substances is not the answer to moving through emotions with grace. By allowing these difficult feelings to flow, the healing process can continue. Substances will merely serve as a roadblock on the path toward healing.

Honor old traditions and create new ones

Continuing old traditions can be a helpful tool to move through the emotions of grief during this time. For example, if you and your mom used to make holiday cookies each year while listening to music, grab a friend, family member, or your partner and continue this tradition. Acknowledge any feelings of guilt that may arise, and remember that you are not replacing the person, but rather carrying on their legacy through your actions. Create any new traditions that feel aligned with what feels nice for you, too.

Ask for help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to navigate the holiday season, lean into your support system extra hard. Asking for help isn’t always easy for everyone, but you might be surprised by who is willing to give their time to you when you need it most. If you don’t feel like you have an adequate support system or need some supplemental guidance, finding a therapist or support group can make the world of a difference in your life.

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