What do you do when the joy and happiness portrayed during the holiday is not necessarily reflective of what you are really feeling?  The holidays – a time of seemingly constant celebration  – may in fact be a time of deep sorrow and sadness to those who have experienced the loss of a loved one.  Perhaps the loss was recent, and this will be your first holiday season without someone you love.  Of course, this time of year can also be a trigger for re-experiencing loss and grief of someone who passed away years ago.  In many ways, being together with loved ones during the holidays can remind us who is not present, and it can highlight the pain of losing that person.  The sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and events of the holiday season often trigger powerful memories of a lost loved one, and the grief can be overwhelming. How do you integrate the loss of someone important to you during a time that is supposed to be happy and celebratory?  You cannot simply forget those who have meant the most to you, especially when those people were the ones that made this time of year so special to you to begin with.

There is no simple or easy way to deal with the loss of a loved one, and we all mourn differently.  Nothing will ever take away the pain associated with losing a loved one, but here are some ways to make coping with your loss during the holiday season a little more manageable.

  1. Prepare yourself.  The best way you can begin to cope with loss during the holiday season is to prepare yourself.  Know that this time is going to likely be difficult for you, even if you cannot foresee what specifically will be challenging.  If you set out with this in mind, you will be better able to care for yourself rather than be thrown off by your feelings.
  2. Acknowledge your feelings.  Begin by simply noticing your feelings.  You may be feeling sad, anxious, or lonely.  Tell yourself that it is normal and acceptable to have these feelings, no matter how long ago you experienced the loss.
  3. Share your feelings.  Although you may fear being perceived a “mopey” or depressed, you may be surprised by the support and validation you get from your family and friends when you choose not to hide your feelings.  The more you avoid your feelings, the more overwhelming they can become.  Be open – talk to family and friends about what specifically you are feeling.  Know that it is okay to cry.
  4. Share memories.  Use the holidays as a time to connect with those who are there with you about specific memories you have about the person/people who are no longer with you.  If you miss the way your father dressed up as Santa Claus or how your brother always made the perfect snowmen, talk about it.  Honor the memories by sharing them.
  5. Create new rituals. As you talk about your lost loved one, you and your family or friends might think up a new way to memorialize this person as a holiday tradition to continue.  Perhaps each year you add an ornament to your Christmas tree that symbolizes this person, or you share a memory of this person with each Hanukkah candle you light.
  6. Find support. Finding a network of people who have been through something similar can be very helpful.  Consider seeking out a grief support group or talking to a therapist.
  7. Plan an exit strategy. If you think ahead to attending a party or celebration and sense that you might become flooded with sadness or grief, plan a way to get some space if you find that you need it.  Perhaps you can drive yourself rather than carpool so that you do not have to wait on others in order to leave, or you can excuse yourself to walk the dog or go retrieve the mail.  Do not judge yourself if you need to remove yourself from a triggering situation.
  8. Give back. One of the greatest tools we all have within us to heal from the loss of a loved one is giving back.  The holiday season provides many wonderful opportunities for us to volunteer our time and energy to those in need.  Doing this often fills us with a sense of connectedness and purpose, and you can even volunteer as a dedication to your lost loved one.
  9. Indulge in a healthy way. When holiday parties and celebrations involve consuming alcohol, be aware of whether you are indulging yourself in a drink because it is a treat or because it is a way of self-medicating.  We all find ways to numb ourselves from overwhelming pain, so be very cautious of your consumption of alcohol (or any other substances, for that matter) this time of year.  If you feel that it is getting out of control, seek out help from a professional.
  10. Take good care of yourself. When you are feeling increasingly stressed and emotionally or psychologically drained, be certain that you are recharging yourself.  Get good sleep, try to eat healthy foods, and get some exercise.  Doing these things increases your chances of coping well with all that the holidays can bring.

Contributed by Staff Therapist, Rachel Goldsmith