Grief Over the Holidays: Tips For Those Needing and Giving Support
Special occasions, including the holiday season, can be particularly difficult for those who have been impacted by loss and grief. Even for those who have not recently experienced grief, holidays can be annual reminders of loss.
The holidays can include stressors like increased pressure to be happy or participate in activities. Common traits of grief, like a lack of concentration and energy, can make it challenging to take on the tasks and events associated with the holidays.
Hospice and palliative care professionals are experts in providing support to those who are grieving. They emphasize that it’s important for those who are struggling to feel empowered to make the choices that feel best for them.
If you are coping with grief this holiday season:
- Be prepared and gentle with yourself
It’s okay to acknowledge that the holidays may be different and difficult from years past. What matters most is getting through this time by taking care of yourself. Remember to get enough sleep, food, and water. Engage in activities that feel restorative. If holiday occasions feel too difficult, it’s okay to take a break and step away.
- Anticipation might be more challenging than actual events and activities
Experiencing anxiety and stress prior to an event or activity is common during this time of year. But dealing with those feelings may be a bigger challenge than actually participating. Reaching out to others can be a helpful way to find support too.
- Communicate your needs in advance
If you are comfortable, talk with loved ones in advance of gatherings so that they know what to expect. Ask them to check in with you, take care of tasks to reduce your stress levels, take breaks, or respect your need to grieve privately.
- Keep to the usual traditions, or start new ones
For some, continuing traditions or lightly adapting them can be comforting. For others, carrying on with these traditions after the loss of a loved one can be distressing. Consider taking a break from usual traditions and potentially resuming them in the future. Create new traditions that sound fun and manageable for you. Travel can provide a change of scenery or an alternative activity to focus on.
- Find active ways to heal
Many people find meaning in helping others, including dedicating focus and energy to an activity. Opportunities to volunteer or advocate for an important cause can be a great way to honor a loved one or to acknowledge an important date.
- Remember that it’s OK to be happy
Healing takes time and the experience is different for everyone. If and when you find yourself having moments of joy and comfort this holiday season, embrace it. Your happiness does not diminish your grief, your loss, or the love you have for the person who isn’t with you.
If you know someone who is coping with grief this holiday season:
- Be there to listen
It’s important that someone who is grieving is able to share their feelings if they choose to. Friends and family being available to listen is an important way to give support.
- Express your support with words
Don’t avoid those who are grieving just because you don’t know what they’re going through or what to say. It’s okay to acknowledge your uncertainty. What matters is that you care. Try saying something like, “I don’t know what you need to hear right now, but I just want to tell you that I care about you so much.”
- Be flexible and understanding
For some, it can be difficult to continue usual traditions without a loved one. Adjusting these traditions, coming up with new ones, or taking a break from the holidays entirely can work better for those experiencing loss. What matters most is being supportive of the way a grieving person chooses to handle the holidays.
- Help to reduce stress
Encourage someone who is grieving to prioritize themselves and what brings them happiness and/or comfort this holiday season. Offer to help with any needed tasks, including shopping, decorating, cleaning, and cooking. Even small acts of help like making a shopping list can be useful and supportive. Doing something, even if it feels small, can make a big difference.
- Be inclusive, but not insistent
Ask if someone who has experienced loss would like to join you for social activities. Invite them to a holiday event, a meal, or a religious service. You can also invite them to charitable or volunteer activities. Doing something for someone else or just with someone else can help a grieving person feel less alone during the holidays. But, if they decline, take “no” for an answer. It’s important to make the person feel thought of, but for their wishes to still be respected.
- Be there after the holidays
When people are grieving, there is often a lot of love and support when the loss is first experienced and during special occasions. But it’s important to keep that support going throughout the year. Sometimes, the lack of activity and social gatherings post-holidays can increase feelings of loss for the bereaved. Following up to listen, express support, and reduce stress after the holidays can also be immensely helpful.