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How to Handle Grief During the Holidays

December 16, 2021

The song tells us “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” and Hallmark movies highlight the joy of family times, but anyone experiencing loss may feel far less jolly this holiday season, and that’s okay. “The holidays are a time to spend with loved ones, something ingrained in us from an early age. When a loved one passes away, however, it may become difficult to feel happy or excited about the holiday because it won’t be the same,” said Dr. Carrie Vargas, regional director of ambulatory services at Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network. “Grief may become more severe around the holidays because it calls to attention that the loved one is not there. The loss is magnified.” The feelings can start before Thanksgiving and linger into the new year, resulting in depression, anxiety and physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue and gastrointestinal disruption, she said. “It’s important to understand you can and will get through this period,” Dr. Vargas said, suggesting people acknowledge feelings of grief instead of hoping they go away. “Lean into it. Acknowledge your feelings as part of the healing process. Give the loss a place in the holiday.” That can include:

  • Saying a prayer about your loved one before a holiday meal.
  • Sharing funny or favorite stories about them.
  • Lighting a candle for them.
  • Creating an online tribute.
  • Looking through and sharing photos of them.
  • Talking to others, especially those who loved them too.
“Grief is not just pain, it stems from love. Try to embrace that and the beauty of the love, not the pain of grief,” Dr. Vargas said. When seasonal festivities beckon, she said what you attend is up to you. Some days you may feel able to attend a party. Other days, you can choose to skip invitations. “Decide what is right for you. Think about what you can handle. Maybe you don’t want to go for a whole day of celebration but you can attend for appetizers or dinner. Set comfortable boundaries,” Dr. Vargas said. Approach events with a plan in case your grief becomes overwhelming while you’re there. Leaving, she explained, is only one step. “Plan something that will be comforting and enjoyable as an alternative, like watching a holiday movie or meeting just one friend for a coffee,” she said. If the loss is new, it’s completely fine to take a year off from the holidays, although if this isolation threatens to cause deeper feelings of sadness and loneliness, introduce something different like volunteering or forging a new tradition. “The holidays may never be exactly the same as they were with your lost loved one, but, as time passes, it is likely you will find new ways to enjoy the holidays,” Dr. Vargas said. “Be easy on yourself, and allow others to provide comfort.”