This is a time of year where loss often becomes highlighted for so many people. You don't have to lose someone over the holidays in order to experience grief during the holiday season. Loss can have happened earlier that year or a different year, altogether.
As a reminder, grief occurs when we've lost something or someone we had an attachment to.
Whether it's the death of a loved one, human or pet
A position that you were excited to begin that was dissolved
A departure from a friendship or family member
Onset of illness or exacerbation of a health condition.
A major change/transition in yourself or loved one (career change, divorce/separation, gender/sexual identity, totaling your car in an accident, et cetera)
A change of environment that was meaningful to you (housing loss, neighbors that moved, your favorite tree was cut down, and so forth) can all be triggering for loss and grief.
Why Grief Can be Amplified During the Holidays
In a Harris Poll taken in 2021, it was reported 36% of Americans expressed they did not want to celebrate the holidays because of their grief and loss, with Millennials taking the biggest hit at 52% of individuals not wanting to celebrate because of it.
Grief and loss show up year round, but the holidays can amplify it. Traditions involving the holidays, shared communal places, people catching up on life's updates and/or accomplishments this time of the year, and memories of what or whom is no longer around to share in this time with can all contribute to a painful holiday season.
Rituals and customs, such as holiday traditions, are an important part of human existence as they provide us with a structure and a sense of predictability -- maybe even safety in that predictability -- in an otherwise unpredictable time. Rituals also bring anticipated cultural and communal connection.
When you've experienced loss at any time, it can sometimes feel like you need to put a mask on just to survive the day. The holidays can be especially difficult because of the expectation that this time be cheerful and joyous. It's hard to wear that mask when you are deeply struggling, and the pain feels like its leaking out of every pore.
Another reason why grief can be exacerbated around the holidays is from making new memories when you're without the person or thing you've lost. These customs can feel daunting or tiring when you've lost someone or something close to you that you would normally be sharing the holidays with. As Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, LCPC, LPC, LMHC, NCC, professor and chair of the Counseling and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University explains in the November 2022 article "Working Through Grief Over the Holidays", the absence of the person or thing you care about can alter how your traditions unfold.
What You Can Do if Living Through Grief Over the Holidays
I wish I could say there was a clear and definitive process to follow when you're dealing with grief and loss. There isn't.
However, there are several things we can do and keep in mind to support ourselves or loved ones who are grieving this time of year.
People experience grief in their own way: How you cope may be different than those around you, even if they are experiencing the same loss. What you put your energy into or the moods you or others are in while mourning may show up completely different. One person may disengage and become irritable while another might throw themselves into work harder than they ever have. Give yourself and others some grace in the process, especially during the holidays.
Name your grief and loss: There is immense power in being able to "name and claim" your grief (more on this in the next article). Take a few minutes to write (bulletpoints or a letter to yourself or that/who you are grieving), journal, or draw how the loss/grief has shown up in your life. Set aside some time to allow the feelings associated with it to come in, move through, and you'll be surprised at how much mental and emotional space you'll have freed up to show up for holiday gatherings.
Allow yourself to engage and disengage in feelings of grief and loss: Grieving takes a lot out of a person, and we cannot unpack and live in our pain. We need to acknowledge it (as discussed above), but we also need to disengage and experience the other areas of our lives. The parts of our lives that are moving forward. Because we all operate a little differently, there is no one right way to do this teeter-tottering between the two. If during the holidays you need to put the pain aside and feel some normalcy in the traditions your family or friends espouse, then by all means, go for that. If you've been putting the hurt aside already for the sake of work or kids or some other reason and you need to spend time to acknowledge your loss, then carve some space during the holidays to do that.
Have a few people you feel safe communicating with when things get tough: What can help with the above bulletpoint is to have several individuals or groups with whom you feel safe and connected to communicate openly when you begin to feel stuck, lost, or consumed with the pain of your loss. Whether it's a good friend, family members, a support group, or a trained counselor/therapist, having proper support can provide you with a healthy outlet. It may be helpful to:
Set up a chat or SOS system with your support system to check in with during the holidays
Set up an agreed upon time or a place to honor your loss within your gathering as a group, such as a plate at the table, memory sharing/story time, or cook a dish that represents the love of that which you are grieving.
Schedule an extra session with your counselor or therapist, or ask if you can check in via email if things get tough.
Healing through grief is not linear: This can be one of the hardest things to accept when it comes to loss, especially because we were taught for so long the "stages of grief". Unfortunately grief does not follow these "stages" step by step, even if you do experience each one. Grief is more like a spider web. We cross over from one point to another to another, and yet all experiences and feelings are related and connected. Within a single day, you may feel angry, then beg for forgiveness, then wonder why, then move to total acceptance and peace, only to later take a deep dive into "what could have been different?" Again, give yourself grace during these moments. You may find yourself in various levels of "stages" around the holidays, and bounce around from one emotion to the other. Drop the expectations that you "shouldn't" feel sad because you are enjoying spending time with your family or friends, or that you "should" be past a certain stage in your grief because of the time of year.
This is not your permanent state: Because feelings can be so overwhelming, it can be beneficial to take on the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. It is akin to the trope of "change is the only constant in life". The feeling and pain you are experiencing will, in fact, shift at some point. I know it is hard to imagine, because those moments we feel the deep throb of loss makes time move so damn slowly. However, it will happen. Our feelings and pain associated with our grief will adjust over time, especially as we open ourselves up to the other moments that make up our lives. There is even a model of grief related to this we'll cover in a future article.
By honoring where you are in your current state by acknowledging your grief, leaning on your support system, allowing yourself to wax and wane in your active grief, and dropping expectations on how you "should" be feeling around the holidays, you can get through them, and maybe even create new memories that will support your grieving process even more.
As someone who has undergone a lot of loss, myself, I know how hard it can be. So instead of wishing you all a "happy" holiday season, I instead wish you all a gentle holiday, a supportive holiday, a loving holiday, a nurturing holiday, and a nourishing holiday.
Be safe and many blessings to you all.