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Coping with Holiday Grief - Finding Hope and Healing

November 2, 2023
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Coping with Holiday Grief - Finding Hope and Healing

The holiday season is often associated with joy, warmth, and togetherness. However, for those who are grieving, this time of year can be especially challenging and emotionally charged. Maybe you’re facing the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or a decline in your health. Whatever the loss might be, the contrast between the festive atmosphere and one's inner sorrow can be overwhelming and isolating. Exploring the aspects of grief during the holidays as well as coping strategies can help you navigate this season.

The Complexity of Grief

Grief is a deeply personal and individual experience. No two people grieve in exactly the same way. Common feelings associated with grief include sadness, anger, guilt, and a sense of emptiness. During the holidays, emotions may intensify or become complex. Traditions, memories, and celebrations often serve as reminders of loss.

There's no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone’s experience with loss is unique and can change over time. Understanding the complicated aspects of grief can help normalize what you’re going through.

Unpredictable Nature of Grief

Grief does not adhere to a strict timeline or set of rules. It can come and go, and the intensity may vary from day to day or year to year. This unpredictability can make it challenging to navigate the holidays. There are often high expectations for happiness and togetherness during this time of year.

Social Pressure

Society places a great deal of pressure on individuals to be festive and cheerful during the holidays. This can be especially tough for those who are grieving. They may feel the need to pretend to be happy when interacting with others.

Traditions and Memories

This time of year is often filled with traditions and memories, which can be both comforting and painful if you’re grieving. These may provide a sense of continuity and connection. However, they can also remind you of the person who is no longer there or another loss you’re experiencing.

Coping Differences

People have various ways of coping when it comes to holiday grief. Some prefer to immerse themselves in seasonal activities as a distraction, while others choose to avoid them entirely. Both approaches are valid, and it's essential to respect your own needs and boundaries.

Processing grief also varies by cultural and spiritual beliefs. Some communities may have specific periods of mourning or collective rituals. Whereas others may take a more individualistic approach to healing.

How to Cope with Grief

The key to navigating the holidays is to find strategies that work for you. It may take some trial and error, and it doesn’t have to stay the same over time.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

One of the most critical aspects of coping with grief during the holidays is acknowledging your feelings. It's common to experience a wide range of emotions, from shock, sadness, and anger to numbness, loneliness, and guilt. The first step toward healing is to accept these emotions rather than push them away.

Bottling up emotions doesn’t get rid of them. Instead, it harms your well-being, leading to prolonged suffering and increased stress. It can cause unresolved issues to resurface later, potentially in more challenging ways (e.g., physical health problems). Try to give yourself compassion as you allow yourself to feel the full spectrum of emotions that arise at this time of the year.

Modify Traditions

Holidays often revolve around cherished traditions. When a loved one is no longer present, these traditions can become painful reminders of their absence. Consider modifying or creating new traditions that are more accommodating to your grief. If certain activities or rituals are too painful, don't be afraid to skip them or adapt them to better suit your emotional needs. Another option is to create a new tradition that honors your loved one's memory.

For example, you might begin lighting a special candle in their memory or preparing a dish they loved. These acts might offer a sense of connection with the departed and help you find meaning in the holiday season.

For other types of loss, such as a decline in health or mobility, this might look like modifying traditions to accommodate your physical needs so you can still participate.

Lean on Your Support Network

Grief can be an incredibly isolating experience, and the holiday stress can amplify these feelings of loneliness. Spending time and opening up to those who care about you can promote healing. This may look like sharing with trusted loved ones or seeking out new individuals to connect with.

Set Realistic Expectations

The holidays often bring immense pressure to be joyful and participate in celebrations, even when you're grieving. It's okay to decline invitations or take breaks when you need them. Allow yourself space to feel your emotions and try to be gentle with yourself. Attempting to force yourself to be cheerful or happy can be counterproductive to your healing.

Seek Professional Help

Grieving a loss around the holidays can be complicated and overwhelming. Therapy offers you support and guidance to process your emotions and determine the boundaries and care you need.

Connect with Others Who are Grieving

You are not alone in your grief. There are many organizations and support groups designed to help people cope during the holidays. These groups provide a safe space to share your feelings and experiences with others who are going through similar struggles. Having people to talk to who truly understand what you're going through can give you a deep sense of relief.

Take Care of Your Physical Health

Physical and emotional well-being are closely linked. When possible eat a nutrient-rich diet, prioritize rest, and engage in regular physical activity. These self-care practices can help you manage stress and improve your mood. A recent review of research studies found that physical activity may benefit the health and grieving process of those facing loss.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can be helpful in managing stress and grief. These practices help ground you in the present moment and reduce anxiety. They can also offer support as you acknowledge and process your emotions.

Plan Ahead

Having a clear plan in place for the holidays can make a significant difference in how you cope with grief. This might look like deciding which events to attend, how to decline invitations, or preparing for emotional triggers. It could also look like asking a partner or loved one to step in when they notice someone bringing up a subject you don't want to discuss.

Coping with grief during the holidays is a complex journey that is unique to you. Healing is not a linear process, and this season may bring both moments of sadness and moments of joy. Try to be kind and gentle with yourself, and know that it’s okay to grieve at your own pace. There is hope even during the most challenging times. By caring for your well-being and incorporating these coping strategies, you can find a path to healing and renewal.

Searching for a compassionate Seattle therapist?

At Existential Psychiatry, we’re here to support you wherever you are in your healing journey. Dr. David Zacharias brings over 20 years of experience in healthcare to his patient-centered practice. Whether you need diagnostic assessment, medication management, or therapy, you’ll receive intentional and personalized care at our office. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

Written by Existential Psychiatry Staff


Williams, J. et al. “Can Physical Activity Support Grief Outcomes in Individuals Who Have Been Bereaved? A Systematic Review.” Sports Medicine Open, April 8, 2021. Accessed October 26, 2023.