The Holidays Can Be A Grief Trigger – Ways To Cope

Grief is oblivious. It doesn’t acknowledge the date, time, year, or place. It is not mindful of your feelings or circumstances. Unfortunately, around holidays, grief’s presence can surge strongly. Whether you are experiencing the holidays for the first time without a loved one, or it has been many years, you and your family may find yourselves unprepared for the intensity of your emotions.

Everyone’s experience with loss and grief is unique. You’ve probably already heard some established tips for everyday coping:

  • Face and accept your feelings; spend time intentionally grieving
  • Find the right social support and choose a good company
  • Be patient with yourself and embrace your emotions; do not compare or create timelines
  • Treat yourself kindly and actively pursue good physical and mental health
  • Keep busy by implementing structure and scheduling into your plans and days
  • Maintain hobbies and interests; try expressing your feelings in creative ways
  • Discuss the life and death of your loved one; celebrate them often
  • Be prepared for grief “triggers”

Holidays and celebrations can be examples of grief triggers. Grief triggers are unexpected rushes of emotion that potentially evoke powerful memories and feelings of your loved one and/or their death. With the rapid succession of fall and winter holidays, triggers are often compounded with daunting to-do lists and celebrations. The result is overwhelming stress and emotional overload. While the tips above remain strong strategies for dealing with these renewed feelings, a few additional suggestions can help with these extraordinary circumstances.

  • Take time for yourself. Do whatever feels right to you during this difficult time. Experience all your feelings and allow for quiet moments to reflect on them. Continue to be kind to yourself and avoid taking on more than you can handle.
  • Focus on what you can control. It is improbable that you can completely avoid holiday commercials or music, but you can control how much or little you’d like to celebrate. Limiting decorations or skipping the ugly sweater party this year might help to lighten a heavy heart.
  • Set expectations. You do not have to please everyone. Create realistic boundaries about your capacity to participate and prep for holiday festivities. Give yourself permission to relinquish your traditional roles and routines.
  • Plan ahead. The dread of a holiday activity is often longer than the event itself. Still, it is good to have a plan in mind. Coordinate pleasant ventures leading up to and around anxiety-inducing festivities. Drive yourself to functions and have an escape plan to use, if necessary (although, you might enjoy the activity more knowing you can leave at any time).
  • Ask for and accept help. While not easy, honesty is the best approach during this time. Let friends and family know what help you need right now. Whether it be shopping, food prep, and/or emotional support, chances are they want to help, but don’t know how to approach the topic. Generally, others often receive gratification and joy at the opportunity to assist. If the emotional support you require is a heavier lift, look for virtual resources online, as well as group support from funeral homes, local churches, and community centers.
  • Focus on the kids. Children may be grieving too. Make sure to pay special attention to them and keep them engaged in as many uplifting holiday activities as you can handle. You may find joy in participating with them, but it is also acceptable to quietly excuse yourself if you have reached your limit.
  • Change things up. With loss, the unkind truth is that holidays will never be exactly the same. When the timing feels right, add a few new traditions to your repertoire. You can change up a meal menu or engage in a Secret Santa gift exchange. Many families do revert to older traditions at some point again, but by mixing old and new ideas together, it is easier to manage expectations.
  • Honor your memories. This is another example of creating a new tradition, but also a way to acknowledge your loved one. Ideas include lighting candles, sharing a prayer, and prominently displaying their picture among the décor – the more the activity pertains directly to their interests, the more it can ease grief.
  • Do unto others. Helping those less fortunate during the holidays can provide uplifting, positive energy for those grieving. It also presents you with another opportunity to memorialize your loved one. Acts of service, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or nursing home, revitalizes the spirit. Donating to a charity or cause that was near and dear to your loved one’s heart, symbolizes that person and allows you to honor their legacy.

Each person is unique in their loss, so too are people’s preferences for receiving information. Below are additional resources, in a variety of formats, for coping with grief during the holidays. The last section specifically caters to parents and children.

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