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Coping with Loss during Holidays and Family time

Losing a loved one is a life changing experience. Celebrating holidays, birthdays and anniversaries can present unique challenges and feelings about grief and loss. Many of us know the stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We also know that this is not a linear step by step process which means that everyone may experience different stages at different times even regarding the same loss.

It is important to allow space and time to process these feelings individually and with the support of others. To create this space, you must first acknowledge to yourself what feelings you are experiencing. This can be done in a variety of ways including: journaling, speaking to a trusted friend or family member, seeing a counselor or connecting yourself to others who’ve experienced loss. This is especially important around the holiday time because reminiscing and memories are saturated, and togetherness and tradition is often a part of the holidays. Once you’re in touch with your feelings, you can then decide how you’d like to talk about your thoughts on the holidays.

Often times connecting with family members is essential or nonnegotiable during the holidays and it can be helpful for the grief and loss process to grieve along with loved ones. A grieving person may feel alone or isolated and the holidays or family time can make these feelings more intense. This intensity can look like anything from sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, hopelessness, shock, numbness, conflict, denial and even relief. This can make managing interpersonal interactions with other grieving family members challenging and sensitive. It’s helpful at times to avoid approaching emotional issues from an expert or all knowing perspective because everyone experiences grief differently. Some grieving family members may embrace spirituality during this time and others may experience doubts in faith so open mindedness can also be important.

Grieving can be an empty but painful feeling so in some circumstances, it helps to have a structure or function for the process. J. William Worden, PhD, ABPP describes grief as, “a cognitive process involving confrontation with and restructuring of thoughts about the deceased, the loss experience, and the changed world within which the bereaved must now live.” Grieving families often refer to the first year after the loss as the, “year of firsts.” This means it’s the first birthday, anniversary, or holiday season without their loved one. The first holiday season after the loss can bring up both expected and unexpected memories of the loved ones so it can be helpful to share these memories with others. This experience can be sad but also positive, funny, and happy as you acknowledge the impact your loved one had on your lives and the world.

Rituals are very important for remembering loved ones and accepting a new phase of life. Holiday rituals often take on new meaning after a loved one passes. For example, other family members may assume the responsibility of the rituals that were once the responsibility of the deceased. In order to move through grief toward healing, many families find that creating new rituals around the holidays to remember those lost is a positive way to experience legacy and memories. If the loss was sudden, traumatic or close in time to the holidays then numbness, denial or avoidance might be a prominent theme for family members and traditions might be too painful. It is a grieving person’s right to abandon rituals in order to survive a difficult time. Furthermore it is essential that all grieving people mind their physical and emotional limits during the holidays.

Anger can be a particularly tricky component of grief because it often drives loved ones away from each other when they need support the most. Anger is sometimes expressed because of a person’s fear of denial or a person’s desire to bring a loved one back into their lives.

Many people are afraid to ask a grieving person about their loss because they are afraid of saying something incorrectly or causing tears. It is important to know that a grieving person is possibly already feeling emotions that can cause tears anyway and inquiring about their loss in a gentle way can be supportive. Considering past, present and future surroundings is important when showing support. Asking permission to bring up the topic of loss can be an empathic way to show support.

Some helpful questions to explore with family members during sensitive times include:
What do you miss most about the person?
What did they mean to you?
What did they teach you about life? What did their death teach you about life and yourself?
What did you mean to them?
Who are you because they were in your life?
How is the world different because they were a part of it?
What would you like people to know about the person?

It’s no secret that there’s no easy way to experience the holidays after a loss and even numerous years after a loss, grief can present new challenges and emotions. Acceptance of loss comes in stages of it’s own and its important to allow time to experience these stages at their own speed. Understanding your loss and emotions around this time can help you move towards healing and adjust to a new world without the deceased. If you feel that you can benefit from talking about your grief, please contact Symmetry Counseling Chicago at 312-578-9990 or visit our website at

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