Picture this. You’re at the dining room table on Thanksgiving Day. Family is all around you. They’re laughing, sharing stories of past Thanksgiving dinners. They’re happy. But all you want to do in this moment is to be alone and cry. Maybe the tears are right there, right behind your eyes. Or maybe tears have been hard to come by lately. Either way, this isn’t where you want to be right now.
First things first – you are not alone. The holidays, well they’re a time of a lot of togetherness, joy, and events filled with family or friends. They’re also a time of intense grief for a lot of folks. If you’re reading this, I’m 99% sure you’ve experienced grief in your lifetime. Maybe small grief, maybe big grief, depending on your losses and how you feel about them. But very likely, you’ve grieved. Most of us have.
Today I’m going to talk you through some strategies for navigating grief during the holidays. I want to be clear; I’m not just talking about grief because someone has died. We grieve when someone we care about isn’t available, such as living overseas, living with addiction, estranged, and more. When I say “grief” in this article, I don’t only mean because of death.
I also want to be clear that these are not 5 easy ways to navigate grief during the holidays. You and I both know that grief isn’t easy. These tips may or may not work for your grief. But if you’re struggling with grief during this holiday season, maybe give a couple of them a shot. Here we go (in no particular order):
- Acknowledge what you are feeling. Emotions are energy; they are signals. They say “Hey. I’m over here. Feel me?” And then we get to make a choice. We’re at a crossroads. Feel it, push it down, numb it – you name it, we’ve got options here. But of those three options listed – you guessed it – the Therapist here is going to suggest that you feel all of them. Grief can look/feel like heaviness, panic, fear, exhaustion. It can also look like relief (ope, that deserves its own post, too), joy, and happiness. We can be happy and grieving. But the key part to this tip is to NOTICE. Simply notice. No judgement. “I’m feeling sad that Mom isn’t here. Sad. I am sad.”
- Do something with it. I’m a huge fan of therapeutic letter writing. Getting our feelings OUT of our bodies can be so helpful. Have you ever written a letter to your late mother? There are some neat ideas for how to do this. One example that my clients tend to value is the Hello Again. This is an exercise of writing to someone you have lost (to death or otherwise). The linked website includes some examples of prompts you can use for this letter. Others I would add during the holiday season include the following:
- During the holidays I remember…
- I always loved when you would ______ during the holidays.
- I wish I could ______ with you right now.
- I’m going to remember you during the holidays by…
If writing isn’t your thing, you could consider going for a walk in their favorite park. Building a snowperson and using their old hat to keep it warm. Telling stories with family and friends, sharing memories of them. If your grief is more filled with anger than sadness at the moment, close the bedroom door and scream into a pillow. Rip up the newspaper. Bring it outside and safely burn it (am I the only one who finds fire cathartic?). The point here is to let it OUT.
- Know when you need to ask for help. Grief isn’t pathological. Let me say that a different way. Grief is normal. Expected. Part of being human. AND you might notice you reach a point where it’s too much. Whatever “too much” means to you. Or maybe your friends or family say, “Hey, you maybe want to talk to someone.” Whatever the turning point is, know that there is help. A great therapist directory is therapyden.com. You can drop-down on the “specialty” and click “Grief and Loss” and toss in your ZIP code! There is no shame –none– in reaching out for support. There is something magical and healing about talking to someone other than friends and family. Yes, you’re paying that person to listen and be helpful, AND they were trained to do so! It’s literally their job to be a calm, steady, non-judgmental, listening ear. And if you want to, they can even help you build skills to navigate your day-to-day so that someday you don’t need to talk to them anymore!
- Set limits. Don’t go to that holiday party that you really don’t want to go to. Don’t make the entire meal like you did last year. Step away for a cry when you need to. We don’t need to be everything to everyone (ever) but especially when we’re going through something painful and hard. AND for some folks, making that giant meal for their family is exactly the thing they need to do. Might I interest you in the concepts of Instrumental and Intuitive Grief? This model explains that some folks (instrumental grievers) need to DO something. Make something. Fix something. Others (intuitive grievers) need to FEEL something. Cry it out. Scream a little. Whathaveyou. Bottom line? You do you. But I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to make the tater tot hotdish unless you really want to.
- Acknowledge traditions and/or start new ones. Read the Christmas poem, recite the prayer, or cook their favorite recipe for New Year’s Eve. We can honor folks who aren’t physically with us anymore by keeping a piece of something they love with us. Maybe it’s a favorite tablecloth or the fancy dishes. If you feel up to it, start a new tradition. Use the tablecloth and embroider new cloth napkins. Go to their favorite movie theater but see a different movie than the usual Christmas classic. We carry our person with us in our hearts and our day-to-day. There’s no pressure to be creative, and if you feel up to it, it can be a great way to incorporate your loss as you continue your life.
I hope you find these tips to be helpful. As I mentioned, they are by no means exhaustive. Since I started writing this, I’ve seen at least 10 “holiday grieving tips” lists. I tried to make this one a little different. Bottom line: you are not alone; you might feel like you are, but you are not. Grief and grievers are everywhere. You are buoyed in a community of loss and love.
Tamara Statz, MA, LMFT, FT is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Minnesota. She has owned her private practice, Vibrant Living, for 10 years. Her areas of specialty are grief and loss, chronic and terminal illness, aging, caregiving, and dementia. She sees clients virtually, in her beautiful office in St. Paul, or in the client’s home. She can be found at www.vibrantlivingmn.com or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
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