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Monday Mourning: When Grief is a Holiday Guest

November 23, 2020


Grief doesn’t follow any particular calendar or timeline, but for many people the end of the year tends to be difficult. And by “the end of the year”, I really mean right around October to somewhere around January/February – so much happens in these few months. Some of the holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day are all there. For some of us, an anniversary, birthday, or deathiversary might also fall in there as well. These anchors can be both a blessing and a stressor in the naturally messy process of grief, and it can be really hard to navigate.


Holidays are generally thought of as time spent with family, friends, and loved ones. We might think about traditions we hold, even if our tradition is to do something different each year. How to spend the holidays in 2020 is confusing at best, and may be posing an agonizing challenge for some. With many government leaders enacting lockdowns or making strong recommendations to limit contact with others, many people will not be celebrating the holidays in their usual ways, or at all.


Grief as a holiday guest is not uncommon. Grief may arrive as deeply missing a person who has died, as a confrontation with a new reality, or as a yearning for familiarity. Grief might show up as irritability, sadness, numbness, busyness, dread, worry, forgetfulness, or fatigue. These feelings might wax and wane throughout a day or week and add a layer of unpredictability to the world’s current strangeness.


I should also note here that while I am talking about memories and missing someone, I want to acknowledge that the relationship with a person who has died or isn’t present may have been difficult, stressful, or negative. For some people, their absence may bring relief, which also often brings feelings of guilt, confusion or unease. This can also happen for people who have been caregivers, where all of the time and energy spent with that person might suddenly be open.


Below are some things to consider if grief is a holiday G.U.E.S.T.:


G-rieve honestly:

· People often don’t know what to do when someone is grieving. Tell a supportive person how you are feeling and what you need.

· There is a vast range of emotions that can come up in grief, with or without holidays. It is okay to feel “crazy”, sad, happy, angry, depressed, anxious. Many people feel that they will ruin the holiday for others if they show their emotions, but this is not true; in some situations, it can actually be freeing for everyone.

· Include others in what you are thinking. You may want to keep traditions, make changes, or a little of both. Discussing ideas in advance with your loved ones can help the day go smoother.


U-nwrap memories:

· Find ways to incorporate your loved one into activities. Here are some ideas:

o Set an extra place at the table

o Hang an extra stocking

o Make a memorial ornament

o Play their favorite music

o Make their favorite food

o Light a candle

o Share stories about that person with others that knew or didn’t know them

o Write a letter to your loved one

o Donate to a charity in their name

o Hold a moment of silence, say a prayer, or give a toast in their honor


E-nvision a plan (and a back-up plan).

· Have a Plan A and a Plan B; even a plan C or D if needed. Discuss some options with the people you will be spending the holiday with (in-person or virtual).

· It’s okay to change to your mind about a plan, even at the last minute.

· If being in the same place or doing the same thing is too painful, make plans with friends or family in a new location or doing new activities.

· If plans are too different than usual, such as not being able to be in the same place as your loved ones, find ways to incorporate important traditions that maintain connection.

· If you are food or gift shopping, write your list ahead of time.

· Know that the anxiety leading up to a holiday is often worse than the day itself.


S-imple is best.

· Ask yourself “What is the essence of the holiday?” Focus on the core messages of the holidays you celebrate. These messages might be things like courage, connection, generosity, miracles, affirmations of humanity. These can be grounding spots to come back to if the day is overwhelming or not going as you’d hoped.

· Don’t take on too many responsibilities. Being busy can be a helpful distraction, but it can also be taxing or overwhelming. If someone else can take care of a task, it’s okay to let them.

· Choose activities and traditions that truly bring you contentment. Ask yourself “Do I actually enjoy this?”


T-ake time for self-care.

· Allow some time to acknowledge and reflect on your grief. You might have to schedule it in or take opportunities as they come along.

· You may experience ups and downs during the holiday season. This can be unsettling for some, but is very typical in the grief process.

· Be mindful of excessive eating or alcohol consumption as they can result in depressed mood and sleep disturbances.

· Plan something to look forward to when the holidays are over. People can experience a post-holiday letdown, so having something special afterward can boost your mood and provide a way to recharge.

· There is no “right way” to grieve. Do your best not to compare your grief style to someone else’s or how other people think you “should” be feeling or acting.


2020 is a year of oddities. Do what is best for you and your family this holiday season. Grief in some form is likely to be a guest at many holiday celebrations. If it’s a guest at yours, show it and yourself some kindness.


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