En español | Grieving the loss of a loved one is a deep and difficult challenge at any time. The holiday season can magnify our sense of loss and sorrow — especially this holiday season, marked by a still-raging pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions bereaved.
Seasonal events can be painful reminders of the absence of loved ones. At the same time, they can also be comforting rituals where we connect with family and friends, focusing on good memories and trying to recapture our sense of joy. If you are mourning the loss of loved ones this season, here are some important things to keep in mind.
1. Only do what feels right
It's up to you which activities, traditions or events you can handle. You are not obligated to participate in anything that doesn't feel doable. Create realistic expectations for yourself and others, but above all, be gentle with yourself.
On the other hand, if holiday activities are a good distraction that bring joyful feelings and good memories, go all out. Get out every decoration and bask in happy memories. Immerse yourself in holiday movies that always have happy endings.
It's all OK — there is no one right way to do this. All you need to do is get through the day or week or season, in a healthy way that is comfortable for you. Try not to focus much further ahead than that.
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2. Accept your feelings
Everyone takes his or her own path in grief and mourning. Some may try to avoid sad feelings; others will be bathed in tears. Some feel bad that they aren't up to enjoying a holiday; others feel guilty because they are feeling joy.
Accept whatever you are feeling, as well as the inevitable ups and downs. You may feel peaceful one moment and gut-wrenchingly sad the next. If you stay in tune with your own needs, you'll know how to get through the holiday without judging yourself or others.
3. Get support
Talk with loved ones about your emotions and mental health needs. Be honest about how you'd like to do things this year — if you want to talk about those who have passed, then do so, and let others know it's OK. If you participate in a holiday activity, let people know you may bow out quickly if it's too much for you, and, if possible, have a friend on standby for support.
Be aware if you are sinking into depression, anxiety or complicated grief (a psychological condition that involves prolonged, very intense grief that interferes with daily functioning). Seek professional help from a physician, therapist or counselor via telehealth.
You can also look into virtual support groups or other services available through your workplace or house of worship, or connect with friends or others who are grieving via online communities such as AARP's Grief & Loss community and Family Caregivers Discussion Group.
4. Focus on the kids
Many holiday activities place special attention on children, and it often helps to zero in on their needs. Realize that your choices around getting through the holidays may affect the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews in your family. If you withdraw, they may not understand why you don't want to join family festivities. Perhaps you can allow yourself to absorb their joy by participating in activities that are important to them and excuse yourself when you reach your limit.
5. Plan ahead
Sometimes the anticipation is worse than the actual holiday. Plan comforting activities ahead of time so you have something to look forward to, rather than building up dread of the pain that the holiday could bring.
New activities without specific memories tied to lost loved ones might be easier. But remember that familiar traditions might be comforting as well, even if you have to adapt them for this year's circumstances.
In times of grief and loss, when we may feel paralyzed by sheer emotion or negative feelings (sadness, anger, resentment), the biggest comfort may come from giving to others. Taking action that makes a difference can help widen our perspectives.
For example, you can honor a loved one you've lost by making a donation in her name to a charity or cause she cherished. Or you can buy something that symbolizes the person, or what you shared with him, to donate to a needy family.
Also try channeling negative energies in positive ways that create good in the world. Give of your time and talents. Volunteer to help people in a way that relates to what caused your anguish. If, say, you've lost someone to suicide, volunteer for a depression or suicide hotline. If a loved one succumbed to COVID-19 or another disease, give money to a local hospital or participate in a clinical trial.
7. Acknowledge and honor those who have passed
It can be helpful to participate in a holiday ritual in memory of someone you've lost, especially if it relates directly to his or her interests. Here are some ideas.
- Light candles.
- Talk, write about or post on social media about the person.
- Donate children's toys or books through a charity such as Toys for Tots.
- Dedicate a prayer or religious service to the loved one's memory, such as a Catholic Mass or Jewish Kaddish.
- Plant a tree in memory of the deceased, in your own yard or in a forest (through a group like the Arbor Day Foundation).
- Make a card or write a holiday letter with the person's picture.
- Place the deceased's photo or a significant item of his on your Christmas tree or among holiday decorations.
8. Do something different
The holidays are already very different this year; losing loved ones with whom you've long celebrated can make it feel like these annual celebrations will never be the same again. In a way, they won't, and accepting this will help you manage expectations. But remember that different doesn't have to mean bad.
If you can, embrace the difference. Plan novel activities (especially helpful the first holiday season after the loss) that create new memories. Hold a virtual family gathering, change the holiday menu, or have a meal delivered from a grocery store or restaurant. Many families return to their usual rituals the following year, but some enjoy incorporating these fresh experiences into holiday routines permanently.
9. Skip it
If you feel that it will be too much for you and you'd like to simply opt out of participation in a holiday, let family and friends know. But plan comforting alternative activities for yourself, and let someone know what you will be doing. It's a good idea to make sure someone checks in with you regularly, especially on the real holiday.
The bottom line: Grieving is a very individual and personal journey. No one can tell you how to grieve or how long it will take. I've lived through the loss of Mom and Dad, my niece Shaelee and my sister Karen, all around the holidays. I've survived by taking my time, doing what feels right to me, seeking support, living in the moment and honoring my loved ones.
Life may never be the same, but you will get through this, and joy will surprise you when it bubbles again — I promise.