Grief and the Holidays

Written by

December 12, 2019

written by Julie Bindeman, PsyD

To be human means to experience loss. With loss comes feelings of grief, as loss and love go hand and hand. We mourn what we once cared about. As the holidays come upon us, feelings of loss can be confusing during what is typically thought of as a happy time of year.

The framework of the holidays can be seen as a parallel to loss: the timing in the winter, when the foliage has lost its leaves and greenery, the days are shorter, and the weather turns colder. This is a time of year where there is less light, so historically, it makes sense to create holidays during this time that have a light focus to them. With grief, it can feel like the light has been turned off, even if temporarily.  People have different reactions to this time of year as it relates to grief.

For those whose grief is fresh, the holidays pose the challenge of navigating a time of year without a loved one and marking one of the many “firsts” in the initial year of loss. It can also be that people don’t want to participate in family traditions. Some members may want to speak about the loved one as a way of “keeping them” as part of the tradition. Each family member might have a different need, and it can be hard to remember that no one is grieving incorrectly.

Prior to the holidays, it might be useful to speak as a family as to what people’s needs are—who is comfortable with talking or marking the loved one’s presence in some symbolic way and those that aren’t. Figuring out a plan ahead of time to manage competing needs can help to reduce the high emotions that are already expected.

Others whose loss is not so recent might use this time of year to reflect on the people that they’ve lost.  A variety of feelings can come up: nostalgia, a fresh wave of grief, or avoidance. Our culture does little to promote and define what healthy grief can look like.  Often times, it is something that is compartmentalized and when the feelings come up, it can be surprising and off-putting. Similarly, we don’t have tools to support those who might experience feelings of loss, and often without meaning to, we might promote ideas that those feelings are invalid.  Creating an individual or family plan of what support might look and feel like can be useful—and that doesn’t have to be talking, but can be about a creative endeavor such as writing, some time to breathe, or time to move your body.

The holidays are a time when grief can raise its head and can surprise us.   As we walk through the holidays, let’s be mindful of being gentle with one another.