Holiday Grief

Grieving During the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us, where joy and festivity seem to greet us at every corner, from our Starbucks cups to lit-up homes lining our neighborhoods. But when we are grieving, this holiday joy can feel distant and wrong, or just very different from our holiday memories. If this describes you right now, you are not alone and you can get through whatever version of “holiday spirit” is true for you this year, even if you have grief as a companion.

We usually decorate our house for Christmas as soon as the leftover Thanksgiving turkey has been packed up. We like to maximize the time we are surrounded by the Christmas tree, the chronology of framed Santa pictures, white lights and greenery inside and outside. We start watching our traditional Christmas movies, dive into gift planning and shopping, and continue to refuse to give into Elf on the Shelf pressure.

Yes, holidays can be joyful and sentimental and time to connect with love and loved ones, but it’s especially tough if the holidays fall during a difficult time in life. 

Also, a panic moves into my body that hangs out until New Year’s Day. There’s so much more to do on top of a daily grind that already is JUST survivable. The holidays add a lot of EXTRA to life, and let’s be honest that it’s not just joy and festivity.  

There’s a lot of pressure in our culture to feel happy, and to not feel those other less pleasant emotions. This cultural pressure peaks in holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Yes, holidays can be joyful and sentimental and time to connect with love and loved ones, but it’s especially tough if the holidays fall during a difficult time in life. 

This is especially true when we are grieving significant losses. When I talk about grief, I include death of loved ones, as well as other significant losses, whether that’s going through a divorce, a new medical diagnosis, or other big life change that leaves us yearning for that “life before this thing happened.”

In my role of psychologist, I start talking about holiday stress in early November with my clients. We recognize and plan for the resurgence or intensifying of difficult emotions while everyone else seems to be giddy with festivity. I normalize that many are suffering silently, or having a complicated mess of emotions, but it’s easier for us all to focus on gift planning and ugly sweater parties.

For anyone going through the grief trenches this year, whether it’s the first holiday season full of raw grieving you are still trying to figure out, or if it’s been years after a loss that always resurfaces with holiday reminders, you really are not alone.

Some tips I curated from other fantastic resources (listed below):

Holiday Grief Photo by  Karim MANJRA  on  Unsplash

Holiday Grief Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

  • If your whole family is grieving, remember everyone grieves differently. This is why it’s so important to talk together about how you want to approach the holidays.

  • Decide together which traditions you want to keep, and if there are any traditions that feel too painful and you don’t want to do this year.

  • Talk about ideas for any new tradition that would either honor an important loss, or celebrate a new direction in your life.

  • Allow for waves of emotion at unexpected times. Plan an exit strategy just in case this happens at a party or get-together and you or your kids need to retreat.

  • Minimize holiday burdens: skip the annual holiday card, accept help from others, give yourself permission to not go to events.

  • Keep an open communication line with the kids. Check in on them, be honest about your feelings (in a way that matches their age and development of course!), let them know it’s okay to be sad or talk about the loss.

  • Talk to others going through similar losses, maybe a grief support group, or other online communities.

  • Be very gentle with yourself. Allow the tears when the tears want to come, allow the joy without guilt that you should be sad, allow it all to just be, without judgment. 

  • Be gentle with your children’s emotions . . . their tears and joy may come at very different times than yours. Just recognizing your kids have their own pacing of grief can help you be prepared for whatever may come whenever it comes.

I hear from so many going through all types of painful losses the importance yet difficulty of making meaning of the loss itself, as well as the pain. For me, these few words speak to that effort to somehow find meaning: “We enjoy warmth because we have been cold. We appreciate light because we have been in darkness. By the same token, we can experience joy because we have known sadness.” (David Weatherford)

In my years working with families going through tragic losses, I have witnessed both the profound meaning the holiday season can bring, as well as the overwhelming pain. There’s room for it all and none of it is the “wrong” way to feel. You will get to the other side, with or without the holiday spirit.


64 Tips for Grief at the Holidays,

Holiday Tip Sheet, 

Coping with Holidays, 

A Guide to Child Development and Grief