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Navigating Grief During the Holidays

For those who are experiencing a loss and the resulting grief , thinking about the upcoming holiday season may be accompanied by feelings of anxiety or dread.

Holiday festivities may cause intensified feelings of sadness and loneliness, especially during the first holiday season without a beloved family member or friend. Older adults are susceptible to grief not only due to the death of a loved one, but also from changes in health status or living arrangements, which may result in the alteration or discontinuation of long-standing holiday traditions. Often, our society wants to see those who are grieving participate in the celebrations around them, believing that the celebrations will help the healing process, or at least temporarily distract someone from focusing on their loss. Those who are grieving may wish they could avoid the holidays altogether. Is there a “right” way to cope with this dilemma?

The first step in navigating grief during the holidays is to honestly acknowledge the grief and recognize its impact on daily life.  Ignoring it won’t make the pain go away.  Pretending that you are okay won’t help others around you understand how you feel so that they can be supportive.  Sharing feelings with a trusted friend or family member can promote an individual’s healing process.

Coping with emotions associated with a loss is easier when an awareness exists that fluctuations in feelings are normal. Some fluctuations may be anticipated, while others may occur suddenly without warning. Strong reactions can be triggered by a certain sound, smell, sight, place, or event which is associated with the loss either directly or indirectly. If possible, allow yourself to experience the grief even if it arises at an unexpected time.  Others around you can offer comfort if they understand the significance of the triggering event.

A grieving individual will have lower energy levels, so adjustments to the number and type of activities one chooses to do may be needed. Allow others to provide support by accepting offers of assistance with tasks that you would like to perform but may be too draining for you to do on your own. Maintaining some energy reserves will be helpful for coping with periods of stronger emotions. While thoughts of attending family gatherings or traditional holiday activities may cause uncertainty, an option to completely avoiding all of them is to plan ahead for an early exit in case emotions become overwhelming or if an awkward situation arises.

Although holidays may intensify feelings of loss, an individual shouldn’t feel guilty about experiencing lighter moments. When grief is related to a death, it is important to recognize that laughter is not disrespectful to the deceased.

Flexibility is key when dealing with grief during the holidays. Consider your traditional holiday activities and routines and discuss them ahead of time with your family and friends. Conversations will help you determine which activities you think you can handle, which ones should be set aside this year, and which ones may require some adaptations.  You may choose to do something a different way for now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way in the future. ( ) An acquaintance of mine lost her husband one year ago this month. She and her daughter have decided to travel during the holidays this year, since being at home didn’t feel comfortable for either of them.

Although the holiday season may be difficult, it will eventually pass. Keeping an open mind about trying something new and looking for ways to bridge old traditions with your current situation can help you stay connected to the past yet still acknowledge the change which has occurred.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN