The holiday season may bring feelings of excitement and happiness, but for many, it may also bring feelings of grief or sadness. If you are grieving or missing a loved one at this time, know that you are not alone.
Meredith Gunlicks-Stoessel, PhD, LP, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, points out that grief can appear in many different ways.
Oftentimes we think about grief coming up as feelings of sadness and loss. At the same time, it can show up as irritability too. “If you’re feeling really sad or missing somebody, sometimes people can feel angry about losing a loved one,” Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel says.
Additionally, it can potentially show up as anxiety. People can worry about losing other loved ones or their own well-being depending on the circumstances surrounding losing a loved one.
No matter how it shows up for you, the holiday season can be a challenging time for managing grief. It’s often a time when loved ones come together to celebrate and spend time with one another, which can make missing a loved one feel particularly intense.
It can also be challenging because there is a sense that the holidays are supposed to be a happy and joyous time. However, for those who are grieving, it can be hard to share their difficult feelings with others to get support.
Similarly, it can be more challenging for those who are grieving to permit themselves to feel those feelings of sadness and loss. Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel says there can be pressure to feel happy and grateful for so many things, which can cause people to push their feelings of grief aside. But when we’re pushing those feelings aside, it tends to magnify and prolong them.
Furthermore, when grief is prolonged or exacerbated, giving ourselves permission to feel positive emotions can be challenging. “Even in the midst of grief, we can have moments of pleasure and enjoyment. Those positive feelings don’t detract from the importance of a loved one or the feelings of loss,” explains Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel. “We can have those happy times and those feelings of grief at the same time.”
How to cope with these feelings
As tricky as this all may feel, there are ways to cope with grief in order to feel supported through the season.
Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel says many times, what is most helpful is finding ways to share the grief and the loss of a loved one with others. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in heavy ways, but what complicates grief is feeling alone in it and having all the feelings to yourself.”
There can be ways to incorporate the loved one into how you’re spending time over the holidays:
Ask others to share their memories of the loved one so that there’s a way to be together and feel that loss, but in a more connected way.
Look for ways to carry on traditions that were historically led by the loved one. For example, sharing their favorite foods.
Overall, look for ways that include memories of the loved one. “It’s a bittersweet feeling, but ultimately it’s better than feeling alone with those feelings,” says Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel.
The biggest thing, Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel says, is to be compassionate with yourself and give yourself permission to feel all the feelings. If you don’t feel like doing all the holiday activities or if you don’t feel like you can be a joyous and happy person when you’re interacting with others, that’s okay. Be easy on yourself.
“You want to be as engaged with others as you can because connecting with others and participating in activities that have the potential to feel good can be helpful for managing grief,” she adds. “But be gentle with yourself if you don’t feel like you can do everything. Give yourself a little break.”
What family members or friends can do or say to a loved one who is experiencing grief
The most important thing is to check in and not shy away from your loved one or feel like you shouldn’t ask how they’re doing. Consider asking an earnest heartfelt ‘How are you doing?’
In addition, think about sharing your own memories of the loved one with them. “Sometimes we avoid that because we’re afraid to bring up hard feelings, but I think it's better to bring it up,” suggests Dr. Gunlicks-Stoessel. “It lets the other person know that it’s okay to share their grief and bring up their loss. It gives permission.”