“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song tells us. But if you’re dealing with grief — namely the death of a loved one — the holiday season can become a barrage of painful reminders that your life isn’t what you had hoped.
Surrounded by holiday joy and cheer, you may feel overwhelmed by a calendar full of traditions that remind you of your loss, or pressured by how you think you “should” feel, or perhaps tempted to numb the pain. No matter what Hallmark says, the holidays are a stressful time, even for people who aren’t dealing with grief.
“Our cultural expectation is that holidays are the time when family comes together,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. If someone you love has died, though, “it’s going to be harder because you have this expectation of what you want it to be. The discrepancy between how things are and how we want them to be is more salient in the holiday season.”
Rather than resisting the reality of grief during the holidays, work toward a version of your experience that addresses what you need to honor your feelings — whatever they are. Here are six steps to help you handle grief at this time of year.
1. Feel your feelings.
The first step is to acknowledge what you’re experiencing as a normal emotion. “What we resist persists,” Neff says. “If you try to force it or fix it, it makes it worse and will make the grief last longer.”
Give yourself and those you love compassion and kindness. There’s no right way to experience grief, no “appropriate” amount of time in which you have to “get over it.” “It’s really about giving yourself permission to be exactly where you are, and not to feel that you have to be someplace else in your grieving process,” Neff says.
2. Plan ahead.
It’s easy to get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, especially if you’re emotionally stressed. But having a bit of control over your circumstances makes the grieving process easier, and knowing what’s coming can lessen the overwhelm. Schedule free time on your calendar so you can exercise or take a walk or care for yourself in whatever way you need.
If you’re going to an office party or family gathering that you suspect will be difficult, take along a grief buddy. That’s a friend who can be your wing person, monitor alcohol intake, and…