Navigating Grief During the Holidays

Written By Brenda Gibbs

MC, B.Ed., B.A.

Grief is hard work no matter the time of year. It affects every part of our health: emotional, mental, physical and spiritual. Many people experience heightened grief around significant dates such as birthdays or anniversaries. The holiday season can be especially challenging because it is a season, not just a day, that is full of memories and traditions. Tears will likely be a part of your season and may even take a sacred place at the holiday table. That is just fine! A helpful idea is to create your own holiday grief map. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  1. Expect your grief to return. Yes. It happens. This may be a good time to attend a support group or meet with a grief counsellor. Look for in-person or online support groups to help you express the range of feelings that can explode in the weeks leading up to the holiday season. It helps to be with other grieving people who also knows what is happening. You may feel conflicted because this is supposed to be a happy and even joyous time of year, yet your grief is here in full force. Feelings of increased sadness and longing, irritability and impatience can mix with times of anger in the weeks leading up to the holidays. You are not going backward but moving through your grief when you acknowledge the return of heightened waves of grief.
  2. Remember to be a good friend to yourself. Show yourself compassion, patience, and understanding. Grief is the sign you have loved, so begin to speak kindly to your grief. Be curious and listen to what it needs.
  3. Take care of your body by giving it daily movement, healthy foods, rest, and lots of water. Remember your grief coping skills like mindfulness, visualizations, deep breathing, or journaling. 
  4. Reach out to others and tell them how they can help at this time. In the past, there have been those who told you they wanted to help but did not know how. This is when you can guide them to show they care. 
  5. Start a new tradition instead of repeating the old ones. If Grandpa always carved the turkey, serve the meal buffet style where plates are filled and walked to the table. 
  6. Surround yourself with those that love you. Share memories and say the person’s name often. This can be a very healthy part of grieving through the holidays. 
  7. Talk to the rest of the family about how they are navigating the season and what would help them. It is important to talk to your children in ways that match their developmental level. 
  8. Opt out of the holidays if celebrating feels too overwhelming. Yes, that really is an option. Take a trip, have a movie marathon, or spend the day immersed in your favorite hobby. Be sure to clearly communicate any change in routines with your family so that everyone affected is on the same page. 
  9. Keep it simple. Honor your capacity and allow flexible planning to keep yourself strong. Cut back if that is best. Socialize as you feel able. You may have to make a plan A and a plan B to accommodate the reality of the day. 
  10. Honor your loved one with a ritual. You may light a candle each day as a way to show that your love still shines as long as you are alive. Set aside time each day to remember them and acknowledge the life they lived, their importance in your life, and the loss you’ve experienced. 
  11. Create a holiday scrapbook or pictures or other mementos from previous holidays.
  12. Make a memorial ornament or wreath.
  13. Bake a favorite recipe.
  14. Hang a stocking in memory and invite family and friends to put notes to them inside.
  15. Make a toast of remembrance at the holiday meal.

As always, grief is an individual expression and you will make your own map that fits you and your family. The list is just a beginning of what may work, so feel free to take what you like and leave the rest. Be gentle with yourself and those you love. I wish you and yours  much peace and strength throughout your holiday season of grief. 

This post was written by bereavement counselor and friend of Cadence, Brenda Gibbs. For more of her content, visit her website.

Know someone who might need support over the holidays? See our post "How to Help Someone Who is Grieving."