Tis the happiest season of the year- gifts, good food, and time with loved ones. But for some of us, the holidays can remind us of who we’ve lost in years past. Or we might be dealing with a current loss amidst what should be a celebratory time. This is part of what makes grief so sharp during the holiday season. There’s an expectation of joy and laughter and good cheer, but with grief, those feelings can feel very distant from us. Grief can also feel increasingly isolating during this time as we witness others around us with their loved ones or in happy relationships. In active grief, we often feel like we’ll bring others down expressing our sadness and aim to keep our heaviness away from others trying to have a good time. While this time of year is always harder for those of us who have lost someone, it doesn’t have to take all of joy out of the season. I’m going to share with you the tasks of grief needing to be completed and how to work through the process of loss in the middle of the holiday season.
First, let me just say that special occasions and celebrations often bring feelings of missing and mourning. This is normal. The recurring ritual of holidays reminds us that time keeps passing, even after our world has been shattered by death or relationship loss. After loss, it doesn’t feel like life should go on. It feels like everything has stopped for us, so how can everyone else keep going? The holidays also remind us of special memories, core experiences you might’ve shared with the deceased and how you felt during the holidays in years past. These warmth-filled memories can feel like a cold sting when you no longer have that person in your life. Again, this is normal. This is part of one of Worden’s tasks of grief: adjusting to the world without the deceased. Recurring holidays ask us to adjust to the experiences without the loved one(s). Something helpful for this task of grief is to create new rituals for your holidays. If you had traditions that involved the person you’re without now, you can either redefine these traditions without them or add to them by remembering and honoring the deceased as you do them. This can turn a holiday routine into a ritual. Making rituals is one of the oldest and most sacred ways to remember lost love and to aid with another task of grief: creating an enduring connection to our loved one. These rituals can be simple- if they had a special recipe they made for Thanksgiving, or a Christmas carol they enjoyed, mindfully incorporating these small honoring traditions turn them into rituals for our loved ones. A personal favorite to aide in the enduring connection is to write letters or Christmas cards to those who are no longer with us. This can be especially helpful if they have passed recently and you’re struggling to cope thinking of them being missing from the festivities. Letter writing slows our thoughts and reminds us that we can still share our thoughts and feelings even if the persona isn’t physically in our lives anymore.
Worden’s first two tasks of grief are to accept the reality of the loss and to process the pain of the loss. These two can be particularly tricky around the holiday season. If you’re dealing with a breakup or relationship ending in some way, it can hard to celebrate momentous holidays without them. To help with these two steps, I would surround myself with loved ones during this season. There’s this unrealistic expectation of everything being light and fun when celebrating the holidays, but the reality is that life doesn’t stop just because Christmas is coming. Find friends or family members that allow you the space to bring your pain and can carry it with you without making you feel like a burden. Verbal processing is key for the first task of grief: accepting the reality of loss. Turn towards your community and share your favorite memories, your biggest questions, and any regrets you’re still processing. If you have a strained relationship with remaining family, set personal boundaries around how much and what you will discuss with them. Go into any family gatherings knowing what you do and don’t feel comfortable discussing and if family tries to go beyond said boundaries- excuse yourself in some way. This can look like either changing the subject, leaving the room, or if the situation warrants it, leaving the function entirely. Grief is a fickle friend, it can be triggered by small things that remind us of the person and can make us feel like we’re made of glass. I promise, this feeling won’t last forever. However, in the moments when you do feel this way, when it feels like just hearing their name or seeing one of their personal items can turn your whole day upside down, it’s vital that you care for yourself in the exact place you find yourself in. Sometimes we tell ourselves we “should” feel a certain way or be “over it” by now, especially during the holidays, but grief has its own time clock. Taking care of yourself can look like reaching out to trusted friends, spending some time alone, skipping the function you don’t really want to go to, going to a Christmas tree farm, making cookies, writing, discussing shared memories with family, or hanging their favorite ornaments on your tree. The important part is that you listen to your body and that you allow the emotion to move up and out of you. Remove the expectation of full-time joy during the holidays and make your own way through the season. Mourning love is a type of celebration in a way. When we mourn, we celebrate our connection. We celebrate our time together, the feelings of love we shared, and what it means to be human. This is the heart of the holidays- being fully present and celebrating the love we create together. This is also why death and relationship loss hurt so much, because love feels eternal. When love ends on the physical side, we have the chance to continue to love through our grief. Grieving during the holidays is a potent reminder of the legacy of love and the fact that joy and pain often exist together at the same time, especially when we take the risk to love another.