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By Pam Dewey • grief, loss, coping with loss, grief and the holidays, grieving over the holidays, dealing with grief over the holidays, coping with loss over the holidays, dealing with death, mourning, losing a loved one, losing a family member, coping with death, mourning over the holidays, mental health, self-care, honoring loved ones, ways to cope with death • December 14, 2023

Grieving is different for everyone, and it isn’t a linear process. Some days, you feel better than others, and you may go weeks feeling okay, just to get sunk low again and desperately miss your person.

The holiday season can be a particularly difficult time for people who are coping with loss. Many traditions involve family and friends, and not having your loved one there can make you feel that loss more deeply. Here are a few ideas to help you cope with your grief over the holiday season.

Naming the emotions

Consider writing down what feelings the upcoming holidays stir up inside you. Recording your feelings can be cathartic. It also helps you to name your emotions, so you can better understand and respond to those feelings.  

Let yourself feel the feelings

Too often, people label their emotions as “good” and “bad,” but there really isn’t such a thing as a bad emotion. Feeling sad or angry is a natural part of the human experience. When you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you likely will feel a range of emotions, which may include anger and sadness. There is no correct way to grieve. Allowing yourself to experience feelings instead of trying to push them down will let you move through these feelings and, eventually, start to heal.

Grief impacts your whole body

Grief isn’t something you just experience in your head. It’s a whole-body experience.

The Mayo Clinic states, “[T]he part of the brain responsible for emotion and stress is activated during the grieving process, so normal brain functioning is interrupted. Grief can change brain chemicals and hormonal functioning, and your immune system can be compromised.” In other words, you may not feel well physically either. You may notice you’re more tired, have lost your appetite and have trouble sleeping. Since your immune system can be impacted, you’re also more likely to get sick.

You can ask for help

Since you may feel tired or have trouble sleeping, you also may have less energy for holiday tasks like shopping, decorating or cooking. Try not to feel bad if you can’t do everything you typically do for the holidays. Instead, reach out to family and friends for help. Maybe they can take over cooking or pick up a few presents. Or perhaps, your best friend can clean your kitchen, so there’s one less thing you have to worry about. People often feel powerless when someone is grieving, so giving them a task helps them feel like they are helping you.

It might help to skip some traditions

Holidays are often filled with traditions. Maybe you cook a certain meal each year, bake a special dessert, see relatives or visit your place of worship. After losing a loved one, it can feel harder to carry on some traditions, particularly if your loved one was a key part of these experiences. It’s perfectly acceptable to skip traditions that feel particularly painful without your loved one. Maybe you’ll just want to skip them for a year or two, or perhaps you want to develop new traditions entirely. You can explain to anyone who asks about the change that this feels best for you as part of your grieving process.

Consider doing less or something else entirely

It’s also okay to let yourself rest, feel your feelings and do much less this year. Maybe everyone gets the same present for Hannukah, or someone else throws the New Year's Eve party this year. Or maybe, it just doesn’t feel right to celebrate at all this year. That’s okay, too. Everyone experiences grief differently, and you should do what feels best for you, not what everyone else thinks is right for you.

Find a way to honor your loved one

Honoring a loved one you lost doesn’t have to be a solemn ritual. Maybe your dad enjoyed making sugar cookies. Offer to bake the cookies in his honor, or if baking isn’t your thing, enlist the help of a friend or family member. Maybe it means listening to some of their favorite holiday music.

Art-making activities can also honor a lost loved one. Create a collage or photo album of some of your favorite pictures to share with other loved ones. Make a painting or drawing of your loved one. Create an art piece that reminds you of them. For example, if they really enjoyed tulips, paint a field of tulips to honor their memory. Creating a piece of art can remind you that your loved one has passed on, but their memory will never be lost to you.

Create a container for your grief

You can also cope with grief by creating a memory box. This can be particularly helpful for children because they don’t understand grief and loss yet. Find a small box, like a shoebox. The box will represent the person they’ve lost. Your child can then decorate or collage the shoebox, and put things inside the box that remind them of the person they’ve lost. When they’re missing the person, they can take the mementos from the box. If your child feels overwhelmed, they can put the items back in the box. Having a container for those big feelings can be helpful.

Give back

Donating to a charity your loved one supported can be a good way to honor them. Or perhaps your person was a regular volunteer at a soup kitchen or a school. Volunteering there not only honors their memory, it can also make you feel better. AARP states, “In times of grief and loss, when we may feel paralyzed by intense emotions like sadness, anger or resentment, sometimes relief can be found by giving to others.”

Dealing with loss over the holidays is hard. However, you may cope better if you try to name your emotions, let yourself feel your feelings, acknowledge that grief impacts your whole body, ask for help, skip some traditions, do less, honor your loved one, create a grief container or give back to your community.