Coexisting with Grief During the Holidays

December 23, 2022 @ 4:04 pm

Grieving a loved one is as natural as breathing.

Grief and loss are universal. The shared experience of grieving a loved one and navigating the many emotions that accompany this very nuanced process can be especially difficult during the holiday season. While it is impossible to replace something or someone that has been lost, there are ways in which we can manage grief around the holidays while honoring wherever we are in our healing process.

“The holiday period is an extended time in which family gatherings are common and we are surrounded by images that encourage family togetherness,” says Dr. M. Katherine Shear, Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry in Social Work and founding director of the Center for Prolonged Grief. “This period can be especially challenging, as grief is typically activated by reminders that a person we love is not with us.”

While the world around us seems to move at an alarmingly fast pace this time of year, those who are grieving may feel further inclined to withdraw and isolate. Joining in can be especially difficult for people experiencing complicated grief, a form of grief that can often feel completely dysfunctional and void of hope.

“It’s natural to respond to the increase in grief by trying to avoid doing things on the holidays,” Shear explains. “Instead, although this may be counterintuitive, it can be helpful to plan for them: in particular, to consider ways to honor a deceased loved one, to share memories of them, to honor your own life, and plan something special you can do by yourself or with others and to allow others to support you and lighten your load.”

These plans may vary according to an individual’s background, culture, and traditions. They might include cooking a meal together, sharing a family photo album, or listening to seasonal music. There is no right or wrong way to honor yourself and your loved ones. Creating a space where grief and joy coexist can remind us that we are never completely alone, and give us the tools to continue moving forward.

The Center for Prolonged Grief offers a free downloadable guide and worksheet called Managing Difficult Times that can help grieving people navigate challenging times of year such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. The guide offers four general principles that people can follow: 1) Anticipate and plan for difficult times, 2) Honor continuing bonds to the person who died, 3) Find pleasurable activities for yourself and other people who are still alive, and 4) Take care of yourself and let others take care of you.

It is important, too, to be clear on the distinction between grief and trauma, as some folks who have experienced a sudden loss may be coping with both. Yet, as Dr. Shear points out, the two are caused by varying events and are marked by different kinds of thoughts and feelings.

“While loss is an event in which we cease to have something of value, trauma is an event in which there is actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence,” Dr. Shear differentiates. “Trauma response and grief are both intensely painful and mentally preoccupying for a period of time. A key difference is in the most common big emotion – fear and anxiety in the case of trauma and yearning and longing with grief. There are also differences in the quality of intrusive thoughts. With trauma, thoughts focus on the event and are frightening and aversive. In grief, thoughts focus on the person and on positive reminiscing, along with deep sadness.” The Minnesota health organization Essentia Health offers these guidelines for coping with traumatic grief, which includes seeking professional counseling for long-lasting or severe symptoms.

Grief is not something we can shy away from. Instead, we can learn how to coexist with our grief, respecting the ebbs and flows and fully feeling all of the emotions that pass through. It is no question that this process can feel lonely and frightening. But with the right people and resources in our lives, we can begin to feel a little lighter around the holidays, and all the days to follow.