Your gain: Dig into why the holidays are so difficult, and learn tools to embrace the holidays after a loss.
The holidays—or a special day that reminds you of something or someone you’ve lost (i.e. a birthday, anniversary, etc.)—can be one of the hardest times in your time of grief. It’s a looming reminder of what you don’t have. It can put a strain on your psyche and mood, relationships, pressure on your financial situation, and downright take the fun right out of a special time of year.
You may be feeling added stress, anxiety, despair, loneliness or emptiness, or lack of excitement. I want you to know, I’ve been where you are. I still am, most holidays. There’s a section below on my experience of losing my mom 16 days before Christmas that, while difficult, I want to share with you in case you endure something similar—whatever the holiday or special occasion may be for you.
Even if I have fun plans, and even if those around me are ready and willing to cheer me up however they can. Simply put, it can be an extraordinarily taxing time both physically and emotionally. Whatever the cause of your grief, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain of loss. These healthier coping strategies can help you come to terms with your loss by finding new, deeper meaning and gratitude in the little things.
Accepting and Coping with Your Loss
Acknowledge Your Pain
The first step in getting through holidays with a loss—whether it’s a loved one who has passed, a job, a child, a friendship, relationship, pet, what have you—is finding acceptance. Whether the loss is big or small, the most important thing to remember is that it’s personal to you. No one has the power to tell you how to feel about it, so feel all the feels!
In knowing that, it’s equally important to understand that you can not, and should not, feel ashamed or like you need to hide how you’re feeling. Own your grief. Acknowledge it’s there if it’s gnawing at you. The biggest disservice you could do to yourself is ignore what you’re feeling or what’s going on around you. Especially at a time of year where you may have otherwise experienced a lot of joy if your loss hadn’t occurred.
Grieving the Person, and the Experiences
You’re likely not only grieving the person you lost. You’re grieving the feelings and emotions that would have accompanied their presence. The memories previously shared, the joy and laughter they brought into a room. That dish they made that filled you with warmth—the one you swear you could smell now if you focus hard enough. We’re mourning the ability to create new memories and struggle to find those similar feelings of joy once again. You may feel lost because of that feels so far away now. It hits you coming and going, and it’s overwhelmingly painful and lonely. It’s no wonder this time of year brings so much anguish! So, coping takes effort and time, but it IS possible.
Getting used to being without both the thing/person and the experiences or memories they could have brought you can be very hard to cope with—especially if it’s your first time around. In moments of severe distress or sadness, take a pause, breathe, and let those pent-up emotions out. They’ve got to go somewhere!
Whether this is simply letting your emotions out through crying or going for a run or exercise (this is great for letting out pent-up negativity… hi, endorphins!). Talk it out with someone, practice yoga or meditation. Find what speaks to your soul, brings just a moment of respite from the sadness, and helps you heal little by little.
Understanding what made the holidays so tumultuous allowed me to feel those emotions and work through the pain. This made room for gratitude for my new reality. For new experiences. Not to take away from the past, but to find beauty in what’s in front of you. Because what else can we do? See the excitement and hope for new traditions you maybe never would have had otherwise. Frame it as adding to your experiences in life, not taking away from what you don’t have.
Communicate Your Grief
Please, do not be afraid to communicate your grief to others. Whether this is to a partner, a friend or family member, a therapist or counselor, whoever you’re comfortable with. If you’re struggling with this new reality you’ve been thrown into, make sure there’s at least one person who is aware of how you feel.
Notice how I didn’t say “understands” how you feel. I said aware. Why? Because your journey is your own, and it’s unlikely anyone will fully comprehend your thoughts and feelings about the loss. Even if your family has lost the same person, for example, each of you had your own relationship with that individual. Each one is beautifully unique and special. It’s a comfort to be able to relate to others, and I truly hope that’s the case for you. But perhaps you don’t have anyone in that boat around you—this was my situation on my first Christmas without my parents.
I made sure to communicate how I was feeling that morning to my boyfriend before going to his family’s house. I didn’t expect him to relate or understand, I simply wanted him to know that there might be moments when I’m not okay or uneasy. Or could feel overwhelmed or disheartened about what I’m missing that day. Especially around a family that wasn’t “mine” (at least not yet). If I ever needed to take a little break from the festivities to have a moment by myself, or needed a hug and a little support from him, he wasn’t surprised and made sure I was okay.
Have Someone to Contact
If you can’t have a loved one physically with you that day to comfort you in-person, make sure you have someone on call. It’s no secret that texting, a call, FaceTime, etc. are all within the reach of our pocket. If you feel like you could need a virtual shoulder, have someone (or multiple people!) to contact.
Even better, ensure that in the weeks leading up to the holiday the people around you are aware of how the holiday may be a struggle or triggering. Most of the time, they’ll have the forethought to reach out to you to make sure you’re okay. If they don’t, at least they won’t be surprised if you get in touch needing a little pick-me-up. If they’re aware of what you’re doing, they’ll be able to be there for you in a more helpful and meaningful way. It’s unlikely your loved ones are mind readers. If you don’t communicate with those that care about you, they probably won’t know!
This isn’t to add more pressure on you to express something you aren’t comfortable with sharing. Or, add more to your plate than you already have. Yes, it’s lovely if people you care about check up on you on their own accord. Just remember, some people may feel it’s best to give you space and time while some might want to be in touch with you more frequently. My point here is to simply not be afraid to communicate what you need.
Know Your Triggers
I have an in-depth entry about understanding your triggers here that I would love for you to dive into if this is something you’re struggling with. Or, are simply curious about what triggers even are or how they can affect us. I truly feel like the triggers we can experience while coping with any kind of grief is never acknowledged enough. They can happen SO often—especially in early stages, and especially during the holidays.
Something that’s good to prepare for are the different (and sometimes unexpected) emotions and triggers that could come your way. It could be something like a dish or cake that’s served, a smell that fills the house. An ornament, menorah, or kinara that holds special meaning. A tradition, activity, or the weight of something or someone not being there is simply a trigger in and of itself.
Being aware of what some of these could be (or just giving it a little thought) and bracing yourself ahead of time, and knowing how to cope with them, will make the holiday far more bearable.
Take Care of Yourself Mentally and Physically
I can’t stress this enough. The holidays, even without a loss, can be a crazy time of year. Prioritizing your health is something you can’t skimp on. A birthday can feel a little less exciting, an anniversary can feel lonely, a would-have-been due date can be excruciatingly sad. This can all take a toll.
Here are some recommendations and things to keep in mind as you approach the holiday season, or any significant day where emotions can run high.
13 Ways to Self-Care During the Holidays
- If parties or other festivities are too overwhelming, don’t pressure yourself into going and don’t feel guilty if you don’t. People will understand!
- If holiday decorations are too much or aren’t evoking joy, skip them this year or keep them to a minimum. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to see them outside of the house, too.
- Skip or minimize gifts. After a death, material things can feel less meaningful and shopping can be especially stressful. If your loss is that of a job and finances are tight, communicate with your family and friends and decide whether you truly want to exchange gifts this year. If not, do not feel guilty about that. There’s always next year! If you still want to do gifts, put a spending limit on it to keep stress to a minimum.
- Watch overindulgence of food or alcohol. It’s so easy to stress eat or have a couple too many drinks when we’re feeling sad or empty emotionally.
- Say ‘yes’ to help. If people want to help and offer their support, take them up on it! My friends set up a meal train when I lost my mom and it was a total life changer and SO appreciated. When I was so distraught, the last thing I wanted to do what think about what to make for dinner. Just taking one less thing off my plate, like making sure I had healthy food around me, made such a difference.
- On a similar note, don’t pressure yourself to make food or host anyone. If you do go to a gathering and feel the need to bring something, don’t feel the need to overdo it. Let the grocery store pre-made section or a bakery do the work! If you enjoy making something from scratch, consider a dish or specialty of your passed loved one as a way to share their memory.
- This is actually really important, but something you might not immediately think of. Identify people who provide you support and calm, and those that cause you more stress. Try to spend more time with the former group and, at least for a little while, take a step back from the latter. If it’s difficult to avoid those that cause some stress (as in, maybe they’re a parent, sibling or some immediate family member), do your best to set expectations with them.
- Create some quiet time for yourself. The holidays can be hectic, so make quiet time for yourself to journal, meditate, listen to music, etc.
- This goes along with the whole ‘take care of yourself’ thing, but whatever it is that helps you stay tranquil and happy, do it. Be it meditation, going on walks, reading a good book, taking an epsom salt bath, calm your mind with lavender and/or candles, the list goes on. If you’re looking for more inspo here, I have a few other entries I’d love for you to check out!
- Speaking of, as I mentioned previously, get some exercise! Be sure to keep your activity levels up so you’re not succumbing to the couch all day. It’s easy to fall into that trap when you’re grieving or in a dark place. Getting fresh air—even running an errand or meeting up with a friend for coffee—is so important for the psyche.
- Prioritize and don’t overcommit. When the holidays are filled with so many parties, dinners, and events, save your energy for those that are most important. Look at everything you have on your calendar, consider which are priorities, and don’t over exert yourself.
- If you’re truly struggling or facing depression, please seek professional help. There’s no bad time to start, and there’s no downside!
- I know this seems extreme, but skip the holidays. If it’s too much to face, it’s okay to take a break this year. But if there’s a way to simplify the holiday first, look at ways to do that and simply start there. You’ll find a way to make it feel right for you.
Ways to Honor Loved Ones During the Holidays
When it comes to the loss of someone special, finding a way to honor them or keep their memory alive can feel overwhelming. There are days where sometimes it never feels like enough, or it doesn’t do them justice. It may even make you feel worse, especially if it’s a stark reminder of their absence. I’ve definitely had those days.
The holidays, an anniversary, a birthday, a due date—you name it—can be one of the most difficult times of year in general. Let alone finding the perfect tribute to pay your respects to a loved one. I have an entire entry that’s dedicated to just this topic! I hope it gives you a little inspiration on ways to continue to keep their memory alive for years to come.
My Loss 16 Days Before Christmas
I wanted to share a quick personal story, having lost my mom 16 days before Christmas. Perhaps you can empathize with my journey or relate to it in some way. Or, it makes you feel just a little like you’re not going through this alone.
My mom passed on December 9, 2019 from esophageal cancer. We could feel and see her worsening weeks before. There was a glimmer of hope that they might be able to release her from the hospital (which she had been in for probably 2+ months by then) for Thanksgiving. Sadly, that didn’t happen. When she passed just a couple of weeks later, the holidays may as well have never existed that year. I didn’t care.
Just the Two of Us… Dad and I
My dad and I had each other, and we did have some family visit just before and just after she passed. However, the holiday season as I knew it would never, ever be the same. My birthday just over a month later, never the same. My parents’ birthdays, never the same.
We celebrate Christmas and, let me tell you, it was the most painful Christmas I ever thought possible. Little did I know I wouldn’t have either parent by that time the following year. I almost don’t know what was worse, truthfully. Having only one parent and watching them in pain from grief while grieving myself, or being without both and taking that on myself.
I don’t think my dad and I ever felt so alone being in the same room with each other. We were there for each other, of course. We shared a beautiful day together as dad and daughter, and I’m forever grateful for that final Christmas with him. But being an only child, especially, and losing ⅓ of your immediate family unit… the silence and piece missing is deafening. And, if you knew the mom and the personality she was, it was literally very quiet compared to the wonderful, hilarious chaos she would have brought to the day.
Witnessing Others Grieving When You’re Grieving
It was truly just sad in every sense of the word. The worst part, though, was seeing my dad in such a state of grief. It’s something that, as a child looking at your parent like that, will tug on your heartstrings harder than you could possibly imagine. It hurt me to the core of my gut, and made me feel more helpless than ever.
While I was in an intense period of grieving myself, I wanted to take that pain away from him—whatever it would have taken. My dad wasn’t an overly emotional person and kept it together rather well, but I could tell there was a piece of his soul that was just… ripped out and missing. I had lost my mom, but he had lost his best friend and wife of over 35 years. One isn’t better or worse than the other, but one is certainly longer and very different.
Moving Forward Without Mom & Dad
The following year when both were gone, I almost didn’t know how to feel. Truthfully, I think I emotionally blacked some of it out (hi, subconscious coping mechanism). I spent Christmas with my husband’s family, and I had family checking in on me. Overall, it was a lovely day of laughter and distractions. Outside of that it just felt… weird, honestly. Empty, without the traditions and things we would do or make at our house. Truthfully, it’s hard to know where to start sometimes, but I encourage you not to overthink it.
Embrace invites from friends or family and go wherever it feels right. Be sure to surround yourself with people that leave you feeling joyful, supported and with a full cup. Emotionally speaking, but I’m here for a full glass of wine, too! Incorporate traditions you’re keen on keeping, and see new traditions as opportunities to create more beautiful memories.
Especially on anniversaries or holidays where it can hurt a little more than usual. Finding ways not to replace what you had but welcome your new reality will be your key to finding peace. Remember, there’s beauty in the abundance of an open mind and heart.
Mourn It and Feel It!
My first Christmas especially, I missed waking up to my parents and the warmth that filled our home. The breakfast we made and the smell of coffee that swarmed the house. The Yule Log channel we’d play on TV the years we didn’t have a fireplace. How we opened gifts together, the afternoon walk we would go on. That’s no longer my reality. Y’all, it’s HARD. Parts of this will be hard for the rest of my life, and I know this.
But that morning, I take some time to remember those things. I didn’t shy away from remembering, mostly because I never want to forget those happy times.
Allowing myself to feel those emotions and work through the pain made room for gratitude for those experiences. There’s excitement and hope for new and exciting experiences and traditions I never would have had otherwise. Frame it as adding to your experiences in life, not taking away from what you don’t have.
Find Your Tribe, Find Your Happy
While there was so much joy around me at my husband’s family home that first Christmas without both parents, I also wasn’t on the same “holiday cheer” level as everyone else was. Nowhere close. While I put on my best smile and a cute outfit (which did make me feel better), I would also take moments here and there when I needed them. I video-chatted with family, and other friends who have lost their dads and I always check in on each other.
Find your tribe and actively be there for one another, I have no doubt it’ll help you. Maybe you’ll even find one through Losses Become Gains!
Remember, it is okay to be happy, too. This doesn’t diminish how much you love and miss the person who isn’t there this holiday. If it’s not a person, whatever loss is now behind you and all of the exciting opportunities and memories to be made that lay ahead of you. Don’t feel guilty for the joy you do find this holiday season. Enjoy yourself! The holidays will be tough, but there will also be love and joy.