I saw an article online recently titled, “Managing grief with grace over the holidays.” It made me so angry. The idea people need to find ways to be gracefully heartbroken and suppress their grief for the benefit of those around them is just so wrong. It is an example of the worst kind of grief suppression and grief shaming I see everywhere in our culture.
The holidays are always a huge trigger for grief — whether your loss was recent or decades ago. Any kind of special event, but the holidays in particular, can’t help but trigger memories from the past. Memories of celebrating with the person, or people, who are no longer sitting at the table. And while the first holiday without the loved one comes as a tremendous shock, the pain of loss gets revived every year.
“I don’t think I can make it through Christmas without Mom.”
“I can’t believe it’s the fifth Christmas without Mom.”
“It’s been 20 years and I still hate Christmas without Mom.”
Instead of finding ways to repress your grief, here are some suggestions for how to live with your grief during the holidays.
1. Share your grief.
Talk about the person, or people, who are gone. Say their name. So often people are reluctant to talk about someone who has died during a holiday gathering. “I don’t want to talk about Dad, I’m afraid it will remind Mom and upset her.” As if Mom has somehow forgotten her husband is dead.
In fact, everyone is missing Dad. Everyone at the table is feeling Dad’s absence and grieving his death. No matter how long ago it took place. The whole gathering will feel closer if they talk about Dad, say his name, tell stories about him and openly express how much they miss him. By sharing our grief, we all feel better.
2. Don’t skip traditions.
People often think it would be best to skip holiday traditions rather than do them without the person they’ve lost. As if sitting down to Thanksgiving without Mom would be disrespectful to her memory. In fact, observing traditions is the best way to keep her memory alive.
The desire to skip the holidays is not really about honoring her memory, it is really about trying to protect ourselves from the pain of grief. But whether we’re celebrating Thanksgiving or not, we are still experiencing the pain of loss. And the attempt to suppress the pain will just mean it comes out elsewhere, typically in an unhealthy way (drinking, overeating, destructive behavior, picking a fight, etc.).
3. Make time for grief.
The holidays often come with long to-do lists and massive amounts of stress. In order to have your feelings, you need a little space and time in your life to experience your grief. Try not to let the desire for the “perfect holiday” keep you so busy there’s no time to grieve.
4. Don’t hide your grief.
People are often afraid expressing their feelings will make others uncomfortable. Too bad. Let it out. Show your feelings. Express your grief and loss. By showing your grief, you are not only behaving in a healthy way for yourself, but you are also setting a good example of how to grieve for everyone in your life. Try not to be ashamed of your grief, it’s the deepest and truest part of yourself.
5. Be gentle with yourself.
The holidays are hard. But they’re extra hard when you’re grieving. Try to be kind to yourself and accept this holiday season will be filled with both joy and grief.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the holiday season is accepting things have changed. And the holidays will never be exactly the way they used to be before the death. But, so much has changed with the death of your loved one. You have been forever changed by grief. And your world will never be the same. That is the great reality of grief. We do not “recover” from grief, we learn to live with grief.
I am a psychotherapist in Marin County (just north of San Francisco). I specialize in working with older adults, older couples, grief and end of life. You can find more resources on grief on my website Jacob Brown.
A version of this article was originally published on Jacob Brown.