Navigating grief during the holidays can make what is already an overwhelming time of year seem debilitating. Even if the loss occurred 10 years ago, holidays are forever changed after a loved one has died. The most important thing in working through grief is to remember to treat yourself with compassion. While avoiding grief in the holidays is impractical and harmful, knowing how to navigate them can acknowledge your grief and honor your loved one.
While decorating a couple of years ago, grief hit me like a brick as we pulled out Christmas decorations. Surrounded by husband and kids, I briefly retreated to manage the overwhelming emotions. After a few minutes alone, I rejoined them, ready to partake in our holiday traditions.
It is easy to feel that grief has no place during the holidays. In movies and tv shows, or perhaps your family traditions as a child, holidays are portrayed as joyful and full of merriment. Yet, not allowing ourselves to feel grief during the holidays does a disservice to ourselves. Grief is just as valid an emotion as happiness, joy, and love. When you feel it start to climb up on you, take a moment and breathe and acknowledge it. Cry, even. That’s okay.
At any time of year and in any situation, boundaries are an important aspect of interacting with others but throw in the holidays AND grief – boundaries become crucial. Boundaries are personal and not every person is going to need every boundary. One person may thrive on the social aspect of the holidays while grieving, finding comfort in being around others who also loved the person lost, while another may find it draining and depressing. It’s imperative to take time to reflect on what activities or events may arise during the holidays and how doing or not doing them may make you feel, and then creating a plan that honors you.
The first Christmas after my mom died was spent in Colorado with “my” side of the family—aka mom’s family. Her sister, her brother-in-law, her niece, and her great-nieces. I remember that Christmas quite fondly because everyone there knew her and loved her. I didn’t have to do anything other than be there and no one expected anything of me. It really was a healing time.
The second Christmas post-her death was nearly disastrous. Staying in Minnesota, hosting my husband’s family, and managing a delayed home renovation overwhelmed me. Despite agreeing to host, I struggled with boundaries, feeling increasingly irritable and depressed as Christmas Eve approached. Finally, on Christmas Eve morning, I admitted I couldn’t handle the gathering, prompting a last-minute cancellation. We packed up, drove to the North Shore of Lake Superior, and enjoyed a quiet, cozy Christmas just the three of us. Recognizing the need for boundaries earlier could have spared many headaches.
There are many ways to set boundaries, of course, and it’s important to communicate your boundaries clearly to others. If your household typically hosts a holiday gathering but it is too heavy of an obligation for you – that’s okay. Tell your family (or have your partner tell theirs) that you will not be hosting this year and you would be willing to contribute a dish if someone else hosts. Perhaps it sounds like this:
“As you know, earlier this year we lost _______. As a way of prioritizing my healing through this time, our family will not be hosting this year. We are happy to contribute a side dish if someone else chooses to host, otherwise we look forward to gathering again after the holiday season.”
If you feel like going to a gathering would be okay for you but you may need some space, it’s ok to express that to others.
“Hi. Thank you for having me. I was wondering if you had a quiet space I could periodically use when I get overwhelmed – I am happy to be with all of you and sometimes I need a few minutes to help quiet my thoughts. Thank you so much for your support. “
When setting and holding a boundary, remember: you are not asking permission. You are telling others what you will (or will not) be doing and it’s up to them on how they react to that news. That is not your responsibility. If anyone pushes back, hold the boundary again but firmer.
“But you always host the best parties!”
“Thank you. We will not be hosting this year. If you would like to host, let me know what dish I can bring.”
One of my favorite experts on the topic of setting boundaries is Melissa Urban –she even wrote a book on it. While her book isn’t specifically about holding boundaries during grief, her insight and guidance is amazing. Establishing boundaries can be uncomfortable but in the long run they will allow you to continue to prioritize your healing and discovering of a new normal.
The holidays are full of traditions – from a cultural perspective all the way down to family traditions. Traditions provide structure in a time that is often hectic, they serve to honor and acknowledge beliefs, and they can be trusted to be there year after year after year.
That does not mean they can’t change. As a child my Christmases were full of extended family and almost always consisted of travel for my mom and I. When I met my husband and learned we were pregnant, I envisioned that my mom would be with us each and every Christmas and that she would help me host his family so that we could maintain the large celebration. After she died – the thought of hosting that all on my own was suffocation but….that was the tradition, right?
In the years since, my family’s tradition has morphed into my in-laws coming over on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day it is just the five of us: my husband, my three daughters, and myself. It’s quieter than I am used to but it is perfect and beautiful and, other than wishing my mom was here, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
It seems that by some unspoken agreement, society has decided that the majority of socializing must happen in the last six to eight weeks of the year. Perhaps it’s because we have realized suddenly that yet another year is coming to an end, a reminder that time is flying by. While in previous years you may have been able to flit and flutter from event to event, navigating grief requires that you slow down. That you prioritize what is important to you, and say no to the rest.
Remember, the most important person this holiday season in grief is YOU. Now is the time to find activities that fill your cup – not deplete it. Maybe instead of a frenzied shopping trip with a friend the two of you go get a massage and a facial at a nearby spa. Instead of going to a party that pressures you to dress your best, you invite a few close friends over for a pajama and holiday movie night, complete with hot cocoa (peppermint schnapps optional) and popcorn.
You ignore this holiday season altogether. That is okay too. If everything about this holiday season feels wrong to you because your loved one isn’t here – then just treat the coming days as any other day. Breathe. Journal. Find support. There is no obligation to treat the holidays as normal when it doesn’t feel normal to you.
Your loved one may no longer be physically here, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t include them in your holiday celebrations. Finding ways to incorporate things they loved and activities they enjoyed into your holiday activities will provide a meaningful way to stay connected to them. Did they like to bake cookies until you were drowning in them? Go bake some of their favorite ones. Did they enjoy going to a theatre production of A Christmas Carol each year? Buy tickets to a showing. Buy a special candle that you light only at your main meal and place it somewhere prominent – maybe even in front of an empty chair where they usually sat. The love you have for the person you lost will guide you in discovering new ways to include them.
You aren’t alone, and you don’t have to do this alone. Holidays are notoriously challenging for those experiencing grief, even for those whose loss occurred many years ago. Oftentimes, grief-focused organizations will hold special gatherings that are dedicated to getting through the holidays, allowing participants to share what they struggle with and getting insight from others as to what has helped them. If you are local to the Twin City area in Minnesota, I have linked a few resources below.
And reminder – if you ever feel that you just cannot cope with the loss and feel like you want to hurt yourself, please please please contact the suicide hotline at 988 via call or text, where you will be connected with a trained crisis worker who will deeply listen to you and help connect you with local resources to get the support you need.
Holiday grief is a beast all in its own, and it is manageable. By remembering to prioritize yourself, set boundaries, try new traditions, and remembering your loved one during celebrations, you may find that holidays, while different, are nonetheless enchanting.
- Laurie J.
The additional grief doula training Beth has completed makes her service unique, as she is able to offer additional insight and support for families as they move through bereavement. As a fellow end-of-life doula, I endorse the care that Beth provides, and refer to her patients I’m unable to accommodate. Compassion, firsthand experience, and her willingness to go above and beyond make Beth’s doula practice a great choice for any family.