Anticipation How to Cope With Grief During the Holiday Season The Reflection Issue
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How to Cope With Grief During the Holiday Season

If home is where the heart is, the one in mine is perpetually on the mend. Years ago, at the close of the holiday season, my mother suddenly fell ill and passed away. It was unexpected, as shortly before, she’d been particularly festive; trimming every inch of our humble apartment with garland and colorful decorations. To this day, a trio of gold ornaments she hung still hover above our living room couch. Ironically, it’s only during the holidays—when they're accompanied by other shimmering baubles and tinsel—that the gilded orbs truly stand out.

The holiday season has different meanings for everyone. It can be filled with anticipation and joy, as it promises time with loved ones. It can also evoke stress as to-do lists grow, FOMO as social feeds clutter with photos of grand get-togethers, and JOMO (you know, the joy of missing out) for those who’ve declined said parties and opted instead for time in pajamas with their nearest and dearest.

It can also enhance or rehash feelings of grief. "Holidays are a tough time for many people, particularly for those who have lost loved ones," says Cora B. Richter, LMSW, MA, associate clinical director of Rappore, a virtual therapy platform. "This can result in an increase in grief and loneliness, particularly if your loss has a direct impact on the holiday itself, such as missing someone who would have normally been present or having a change in tradition due to the loss." 

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Design by Tiana Crispino/Unsplash

Loss is something that many have experienced, but this year, it’s especially prevalent due to the immense impact of the global pandemic. With over 700,000 lives lost across the nation, it’s especially important to be mindful of the pain that people around us might be carrying. “There is going to be a higher percentage of people who are bereaved this year and in the coming years because of all of the losses we’ve experienced due to COVID-19,” says licensed social worker Nicole Alston, MSW, “We really need to take it easy on ourselves and give some grace to each other. We don’t know what someone else is dealing with.” 

Ahead, Richter and Alston break down the feelings that come with loss during the holiday season and various ways to cope.

Meet the Expert

  • Cora B. Richter, LMSW, MA has a double master’s degrees in both social work and clinical psychology. She is the Associate Clinical Director of Rappore, a virtual therapy platform. 
  • Nicole Alston, MSW, is a licensed social worker, a trained prolonged grief disorder therapist, and an associate for the Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia University School of Social Work. The center is focused on educating clinicians on how to treat those with Prolonged Grief Disorder.
snowy trees

Design by Tiana Crispino/Unsplash

What Is Grief? 

“In an overly-simplistic definition, grief is a reaction to loss,” says Richter. However, she explains that it is anything but simple and has an array of causes. “This can be the loss of a loved one, an important relationship, or of independence. Grief can begin before the loss actually takes place, like in the example of a loved one having a terminal or life-changing diagnosis.” 

Alston echoes this, saying that grief encompasses thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. “Grief is not linear,” she says. “It can come in waves.” She goes on to explain that following the loss, you might have a period of time where your grief is intense and preoccupying. Following that period, you might feel better, until you face a trigger—like an anniversary, a birthday, or the holidays—that brings you back to how you felt immediately after the loss. It’s grief’s situational nature that makes it so difficult to decode and process.

How Do We Cope? 

As mentioned, there is no right or wrong way to deal with the grief of loss, but there are ways that can help make this time easier, including the below. 

Give Yourself Time

According to Richter, time is the greatest contributor to healing grief. “Be patient with yourself,” she says. Rushing the process will only exacerbate your situation.

Assess Your Emotional Bandwidth

“I think of grief during the holidays as a heavy cloak that people have to carry,” says Alsten, explaining that, combined with the expectations of the season, grief can make you feel weighed down. She suggests gauging how much you have in your "emotional tank” and grieving the way you want to, unapologetically. 

Give Yourself Permission to Say "No"

If you don’t want to partake in normal traditions, you don’t have to. Perhaps you skip decorating this year or you give yourself a pass when it comes to attending holiday parties. “I don’t feel that there’s any need for you to add to [your stress] by putting an unrealistic expectation on yourself to be strong and fight through it,” says Alsten, “It’s okay to turn down invitations that are triggering.” 

christmas ornaments

Design by Tiana Crispino/Unsplash

Spend Time With Others

Conversely, surrounding yourself with people that fill up your emotional tank and that you enjoy being around can be helpful. If you feel up to it, Richter suggests “reaching out to family and friends and making connections with others where you can.” 

Help Others

“Doing things for others can provide a sense of meaning and purpose,” says Richter, who suggests volunteering or helping a local charity that is important to you or the person you're grieving. 

Remember Those You've Lost

Taking time to honor those you’ve lost can bring you peace, says Richter. “Sharing good memories, looking through old photos, and speaking to other people who share your loss can offer comfort and a feeling of connection.”

When the holidays inevitably strike an emotional chord with my family and remind us that we aren’t as whole as we once were, we honor my mother by indulging in our most joyous memories with her. It can be in the form of quick mentions in conversation (like, “Did you make the recipe the way mom used to?”) or hours of silently sifting through stacks of photo albums. Or we’ll tell the story about the day she hung up the ornaments that remain hanging in the home we all once shared.

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