5 Ways to Cope with Grief During the Holidays

This time of year we are inundated with messages to be happy, be of good cheer, and to be grateful.  What happens if you don’t feel cheerful or happy or grateful?   What if you’ve lost a loved one, or a dear friend or family member either through death, estrangement or chronic illness and this time of year only highlights your loss?

Sometimes the best we can do to cope with grief during the holidays is to persevere.  This is a word not often used in our culture of quick fixes and easy solutions.  The dictionary defines persevere “to persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counter-influences, opposition, or discouragement.”

So what would happen if you gave yourself permission to be sad during this time of year?  To take time away from the festivities and be quiet?  To be alone with your grief?  To simply put one foot in front of the other, get up, and do only what needs to be done each day?

Some of us are afraid of our tears, as if we will never stop crying.  Others are afraid to be alone, as if loneliness will somehow engulf us.  Others are afraid to be quiet, afraid of stopping long enough to feel emotional pain.  And still others are angry, fighting against acceptance and pushing away others to avoid the deeper pain of loss.

We do not need to be afraid of our feelings, of our tears, our sadness.  Our spirits know exactly what we need for healing, the same way our body heals wounds without our conscious orchestration of the process.  Below are just a few ideas to facilitate that spirit healing during this holiday season and winter time.

  1.  “Love winter, when the plant says nothing.”  This quote by Thomas Merton validates that even though we may feel down during this season, our spirit is healing.  Spend time in the quiet.  If you have a favorite place to sit, sit.  If you are afraid to do this, or have a hard time sitting still, set a timer for an amount of time that feels comfortable to you.  Have a box of Kleenex handy.  Have pen and paper ready if you feel like writing.  Let go of any mental “shoulds” or negative messages about how to be quiet or about sadness or about how much time it takes to get over loss.  You have every right to feel the way you are feeling and sometimes allowing the feelings to come can be a great relief, even if only temporary.  Trust the ebb and flow of your feelings.
  2. Reach out to someone else who is lonely, or grieving.  Remember, if reaching out is hard for you, it probably is for others, as well.  You might spend some time sharing your grief, and then plan an activity together.  Members of 12 Step programs have found the fellowship of other members to be one of the greatest gifts during holiday seasons, especially if family relationships are strained.
  3. Combat the gray by lighting a candle and reflect on its warmth.  Because this time of year can be full of gray days, the days can mirror the grayness we are feeling inside.   Light a fire in the fireplace and notice all the different colors.  Go for a walk outside, weather permitting, as even on gray days, the light outside is uplifting to our brains.  Turn on lights in your home.  Replace ordinary light bulbs in your home with bulbs that replicate natural light.
  4. Create a new ritual or tradition. If your loved one is deceased, invite others who loved him or her to a holiday memory party.  Share stories, photos and favorite foods as a way to celebrate your loved ones gifts to you.  And pass the Kleenex.  Tears are healing.  Shared tears are healing and bonding.  If you are separated, divorced or estranged from loved ones focus on a tradition or ritual you find painful without them and create a new ritual.  This can be especially helpful to young children as they are experts at living in the moment.  For older children and teens be sure to include them in the creation of new traditions.
  5. At the end of each day, if you put one foot in front of the other, know that your perseverance, your steadfastness is enough.  Feelings change.    Spring always follows winter given time.

If you are struggling with grief and feel too alone, if you are worried you are crying too much, feeling too angry or feel incapable of hope, seek help sooner rather than later, especially if you are having suicidal thoughts.  Let a professional help you navigate this time.  You are worth it.

About The Author

Patti Bitter, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, and owner of Tapestry Counseling, LLC, in St. Louis, MO.  Ms. Bitter provides individual and couples and marriage counseling in the St. Louis area.  To learn more about her practice, visit her website at www.tapestrycounseling.com or call 314-965-7494.