Navigating Grief During the Holidays in a Season of Celebration

Author: Jessica Perez

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and New Year’s…The next few weeks are a non-stop party, right? A time to celebrate and enjoy oneself with family and friends.

While that may be true for some, the truth is that the holidays can be a very difficult time for many of us – especially those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Holidays can magnify our emotions including sadness, loneliness, worry, or irritability. For instance, the first Christmas without a loved one, specifically, can be extraordinarily difficult.

So, as we approach the festive season, it is important to recognize our feelings, process our grief, and practice new coping skills. It’s also important to understand when and where you can find help, should grief begin to overwhelm you. With that in mind, here are some tips on how to approach holiday celebrations during a time of grief.

Tune Into Our Grief

First, let’s define grief. Grief usually refers to deep emotional sorrow. This most often happens because of the loss of a loved one, but it can also occur if you’ve suffered through any traumatic event – such as being fired, a divorce or breakup, a physical accident or injury, and witnessing or being a victim of violence.

Grief can create a variety of physical symptoms and emotions, including:

  • Sadness/depression/loneliness
  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Numbness
  • Anxiety/Panic
  • Irritability/shortened fuse
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Mixed feelings – Such as relief that a love who may have been suffering from a long illness is now at peace, but anger that they have left.
  • Stomach upset/nausea
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension

There is no right or wrong way to feel while dealing with grief. Grief affects everyone differently, even those grieving the same loss or event. That is why it is important to understand the connection between grief and the wide range of (sometimes very intense) emotions and sensations that we may experience.

Knowing what to look for and being aware of what you might feel can help you handle the holidays and help others deal with the emotions that this time of year can sometimes intensify.

The reasons why the holidays often intensify grief are also myriad. Often, it is because the holidays remind of us those loved ones who are no longer with us. For instance, a particular meal, toast, or gift makes us think of someone recently deceas

ed and can immediately trigger a grief response. Or perhaps just being in a specific place, or thinking of how a spouse, parent, child, or sibling, loved a specific holiday is enough to conjure intense emotions. Even if the loss or event happened many years ago, our bodies still remember the pain and we can experience grief without awareness of the trigger.

However, there are methods and tips you can use – or help others use – to cope with loss and feelings of sadness. These may help you avoid making the holidays overly stressful or painful.

Explaining Grief to Your Children

If you have children, they too should understand why grief may occur during the holidays. Children are better able to handle their big feelings when they know what to expect and parents create safety in sharing their emotions.

It’s natural to want to protect your children from the pain. Often, parents feel they are protecting their children by avoiding discussions around grief and loss. Parents can feel like they “need to be strong” or hide their emotions to keep their children happy. Children can sense when “the vibe is off” (as they say) or when the family is grieving. Having an age-appropriate discussion about grief can allow them to understand and express their feelings, improve insight and decrease negative behaviors caused by a dysregulated nervous system. This discussion could prevent children from thinking the intense emotions in others is their fault.

To prepare you children for an upcoming holiday that could be full of high emotions, it’s good to warn them in advance if you or other family members are having a hard time. When you do talk with your children about holiday grief do so in a safe space and time. Always use a warm and gentle tone of voice. And make eye contact and get on their level when talking. For example, a few days ahead of the event you could say “we are going to have Christmas dinner with Grandma. If you notice Grandma or anyone else in the family seems sad or stressed, just remember that they are missing Grandpa. Everyone in our family is sad about Grandpa and Christmas was his favorite holiday. Grandpa loved you so much and I wanted you to know that it’s ok if you feel sad too.”

Be prepared for follow-up questions and let them know that it is good to ask questions. Remind them of how brave they are for sharing these feelings with you. Above all, be patient. You may have to answer the same question several times, and your child may even react emotionally when you explain things to them. Give them space and time to process those feelings and let them know that you’re available to help them. Extra cuddles or a shared activity can be helpful to calm emotions at the end of your conversation.

It is also perfectly fine to ask for help if your child is having a hard time coping with grief. If you notice any extreme behavior changes, changes in school attendance or performance, or changes in sleeping or eating, you may want to seek professional help with your child’s understanding and reaction to grief.

Identify Grief Coping Skills

There are things we can do to help cope with the emotions of grief and improve our ability to function during the holiday season. While these coping skills will not get rid of grief, they at least allow you to navigate feelings of grief while being a part of holiday events.

Some helpful coping skills can include:

  • Journaling or writing a letter to your loved one
  • Exercise
  • Visting the gravesite
  • Baking
  • Being of service to others
  • Spiritual practices/prayer
  • Setting boundaries
  • Increase physical touch with a partner or get a massage
  • Watch a funny movie or stand-up comedy show
  • Create new traditions

Establishing Boundaries for Holiday Events

Boundaries are the guardrails we set around our time, attention, body and heart, that keep us healthy. When used properly, boundaries are not set out to keep things out – rather they are a way to connect people in a deeper way.

Setting boundaries also allows us to manage our feelings during a difficult holiday season. For instance, if you know that attending a certain event could cause you discomfort or disregulation of your emotions, setting a boundary with loved ones could be helpful. If you still want to attend the event you can “cope ahead” with a few simple steps: letting a family member or friend know in advance that you are struggling with grief, making sure you have an “out” by bringing your own car, bring a support person to the event, and increasing self-care in the days before the event.

It’s also OK to say “no.”  You don’t have to explain anything to anyone. If something is too overwhelming, it’s important to honor your grief by declining an invitation or canceling plans. There will be other opportunities after the holidays to connect. We can assume that people will be devastated if we don’t attend, but most of the time people are focused on themselves. Give yourself permission to disconnect when needed.

Managing Alcohol Intake

It is so easy to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism because it can dull emotions and make it easier to get through some tough moments. Drinking while grieving is dangerous because it is just delaying the inevitable tough feelings that will follow. Alcohol can worsen depressive symptoms and cause us to make poor choices. If you are worried about holding yourself accountable for limiting alcohol intake, speak to your family or friends for support.

Honoring Loved Ones

There are plenty of ways to honor lost loved ones during the holidays. Giving yourself room to honor your loss, in advance of a holiday can help contain painful emotions during holiday events.

Creative ways to honor loved ones include:

  • Light a candle in your loved one’s memory.
  • Make a Christmas gift or donation in their name.
  • Include your loved one’s favorite food in your holiday meal.
  • Write notes to the deceased and put them in a specific place (such as a stocking or Christmas gift box).
  • Hang an ornament on the Christmas tree in honor of your loved one.
  • Dedicate a Chanukah candle in honor of your loved one.
  • Set a place at the table for them
  • Volunteer for an organization that was important to them

Practicing Patience with Yourself

Above all, be patient and kind with yourself. The holidays can be tricky even if you’re not experiencing emotional trauma, so give yourself time and space, and allow yourself to experience your emotions. Set reminders to be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself grace and be patient in knowing that things will eventually get better. Share your feelings of loss – including concerns and apprehensions – with your friends and family and accept that you may need extra support during the holidays.

Seeking Support When Dealing with Grief During the Holidays

If the holiday season seems overwhelming, we encourage you to seek extra help and support.

Bridgepoint’s multidisciplinary team of mental health providers is ready to provide support to our community. We provide integrative, trauma-informed, psychiatry and therapy- in one office! You are not alone this holiday season!

Contact us today at 770-858-5377 or visit us at