Holiday grief: understanding and acknowledging the pain
The MIND 24-7 Team | December 8, 2023
Grief is a normal part of life and can be especially hard during the holidays. Losing a loved one, pet, job, relationship, or something meaningful can change how you feel about the season. While the time from Thanksgiving through the New Year can be filled with joy, gratitude, and togetherness, it can also be filled with feelings like sadness, emptiness, and loneliness.
This holiday season, let’s come together to talk about grief and loss. This way, grief can feel a little less scary, and we can better help those in our lives who are grieving. In this guide, we will talk about what grief is, why it happens during the holidays, how to process it, and where to go for support.
Grief during the holidays
Grief is a natural way to feel when we lose someone or something we care about. While it is different for everyone, grief can create feelings of sadness, anger, regret, loneliness, emptiness, and more. Grief is often thought about in stages like accepting the reality of the loss, feeling the pain of the loss, adjusting to life after the loss, and having other relationships. Everyone goes through the stages differently, and repeating them is possible, particularly when triggered by memories.
For many people who have lost someone or something significant to them, the holidays are full of triggers. Whether the loss happened long ago or very recently, the pain and sorrow can feel really intense with so many reminders of what once was and could have been. The feelings may hit unexpectedly, be hard to manage, and feel out of place. The important thing to remember is that grief is healthy and natural. Plus, understanding grief a bit more can help make it easier to handle.
Common grief triggers and challenges during the holidays
Certain things during the holidays can remind us of our losses. When a wave of grief hits, it may be hard to know it is grief. For example, a well-loved tradition may surprisingly feel more like a lost opportunity or gaping absence. It’s okay to feel sad or down when these things happen. It’s a normal part of the grieving process. Let’s take a look at some common triggers to understand them better.
Our favorite places are usually so meaningful to us because of the experiences they hold. While our favorite restaurants probably serve good food, they also remind us of good times with friends and family. During the holidays, places take on extra special meaning. Maybe grandma’s house is the place where everyone opens presents, or a specific store is the place to go to find the perfect gift. When someone or something is gone, those places feel different. Instead of creating excitement, joy, or nostalgia, certain places can trigger feelings of grief.
Chances are, when you hear the words Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year, certain images come to mind. When a person has experienced a loss, something they see, even the smallest detail, can trigger memories of the past and renew a sense of grief. Maybe it’s the twinkle of lights, an ornament, a movie, or seeing someone who looks like a loved one who passed away, and suddenly they feel overwhelmingly down.
Similar to sights and places, smells can also trigger memories and grief. In fact, smells and memory are closely linked in the brain. Smells are unique triggers because they are the strongest sense-based memories and can linger with us. The smell of holiday food, hay on a hayride, pine trees, candy canes, perfume, and more can remind someone of times long ago.
The holidays are filled with seasonal music and distinct sounds. Sounds of a cracking fire, a particular song, or people gathering together can trigger memories. On the flip side, silence can also be a trigger for grief and make it hard to escape the overwhelming emotions.
9 tips for recognizing and processing holiday grief
Grief is painful, and it is natural to want to push the feelings away. Grievers may experience feelings new and unfamiliar to them, which makes it hard to know how to process the grief. During the holidays, dormant grief can suddenly feel intense again, even years after a loss. The feelings may seem random or unexplained. Here are some tips to recognize and process holiday grief:
1. Understand the impact of grief.
Losing someone or something we love can shake a person to their core. A significant loss can make it hard to do everyday activities and enjoy things like the holiday season. Grief can also involve stress, which can irritate old injuries, create feelings of tension in the body, or make it easier to catch a cold.
2. Don’t hide from the feelings.
Grief can create many different feelings, including anger, sorrow, and regret. It can even create surprising emotions like humor and joy. Although it may be painful, allow yourself time and space to feel the feelings. For example, if you need to cry, cry. If you are angry, find a healthy and safe way to express your anger.
3. Remember that processing takes time.
Losing someone or something incredibly meaningful is devastating. It can take time to accept the reality of the loss, feel the pain of the loss, and begin to heal. Even if you feel like you have already processed the loss, the holidays might trigger painful feelings that need to be processed again.
4. Be kind to yourself.
When someone or something you hold dear is gone forever, it can be hard to feel okay. It may seem like things will never be right. Plus, the holidays might make the pain feel worse or very different from the rest of the year. Remember to be kind to yourself, regardless of where you are in your grieving journey. Know that it is okay to feel sad.
5. Take care of yourself.
When grief hits, it can be hard to think about anything else. However, it is more important than ever to take care of yourself. Even on the worst of days, try to eat healthy food, get a good amount of sleep, and do some physical activity. Even some gentle stretches or a slow walk can help prevent the grief from spiraling into depression or contributing to other health issues.
6. Spend time with loved ones.
Often, grief and loneliness go hand in hand. A healthy way to process grief is to spend some time with friends and family who care. If a social gathering feels like too much, consider chatting with someone over the phone or going on a silent walk together. The presence and care of another person can be very comforting in tough times.
7. Celebrate memories.
A beautiful way to process grief is to celebrate memories. Consider looking through photos, watching home videos, or reminiscing with others. Keeping memories alive can help you find some joy amidst a great deal of heartbreak.
8. Revisit old traditions and make new ones.
When someone passes away, holiday traditions are one of many things that may never be the same again. To recognize and process grief, consider revisiting and making new traditions. Reflect upon the past to appreciate the good times and keep memories alive. Making new traditions can be an important part of moving forward while never forgetting those who have passed away.
9. Ask for help if you need it.
It is natural for grief to feel painful and overwhelming, particularly around the holidays. The good news is that no one has to handle grief on their own. If you or someone you love is dealing with holiday grief, consider reaching out to a loved one or mental health provider. It can be comforting to talk with someone who cares. It is particularly important to get professional help if the grief is so strong that it is hard to do daily activities or suicidal thoughts arise.
Here are three resources to consider if the feelings of grief become a crisis:
- Crisis Text Line: text TALK to 741741.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 988.
- The Trevor Project: text START to 678-678 or call 1-866-488-7386 or chat online. Note: The Trevor Project serves LGBTQIA+ youth.
Holiday grief support with MIND 24-7
If you’re in the Phoenix area and need support, MIND 24-7 is here for you. We offer 24/7 walk-in, crisis, and ongoing support for children and adults, even during the holidays. Whether you need an empathetic listener or emergency help, our doors are always open. To get same-day holiday grief support, visit one of our convenient locations or text/call 1-844-MIND247.