Grief at Christmas: How to Cope With It

Even if you lost a loved one a long time ago, you may still feel sad when it's time to go gift shopping or decorate your home with ornaments. Grief at Christmas time can be especially difficult. That’s because so much of the holiday season is about spending time with the ones you love.

Key takeaways:
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    Grief at Christmas and the holidays is normal, but everyone expresses it differently.
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    Grief is the most common reason adults feel stressed or anxious during Christmas and the holidays.
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    Admitting that you’re having a hard time is the first step to coping with grief during the holidays.

Though grieving during the holidays is tough, there are ways to cope. You may even learn new ways to find joy in things that once made you sad.

Grieving at Christmas

Missing loved ones during the holidays is normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. Family and togetherness are such big parts of the holiday season.

Experiencing the pain of missing a family member or close friend is especially hard at this time. More adults feel stressed or anxious about the holiday each year due to grief than anything else.

Even though grief or bereavement after the loss of a loved one is universal, everyone expresses it differently. Some people might feel more tired than usual, while others may feel irritable. Grief can even make you physically sick. During the holidays, you may find yourself wanting to cry or feeling angry at moments when other people are quite joyful.

A few factors affect your bereavement, like your relationship with the person who passed or where you are in your grieving process.

Ways to cope with grief during Christmas time

Dealing with grief at Christmas or any major holiday is no small challenge. It’s important to understand how grief affects you during this time. So the first step in dealing with grief during the holidays is to admit that this is a difficult time for you. Once you accept that it is a hard time, you can begin to discover useful ways to cope with your sadness.

Plan ahead

Coping with grief at Christmas time requires preparation. One way to avoid some of the pain of grief is to set realistic expectations and accept that this year will feel different for you. You may have been more involved in planning parties or family get-togethers in the past. However, you may not need to do as much this year. Allow yourself space to make different decisions based on your needs.

Do good for others

Studies show that helping others helps you, too. Volunteer your time at a local soup kitchen or charity, help a friend shop for gifts, or lend your time to service a community center near you. When your energy is focused on helping others, not only is your mind off of grief but it’s proven to boost “feel-good” chemicals in your body like serotonin.

Make new traditions

Old holiday traditions can be a great way to honor family history and togetherness. But when grief is involved, those same traditions can trigger old memories and sadness. Creating traditions leaves space for fresh new memories that can bring a lot of joy. You can try a new recipe, decorate your home with new ornaments and baubles, or share some of your best memories of your loved one as a way to remember them.

Have conversations with family

Grief at Christmas and the holidays is not something you should experience alone. The holidays are about being with family and friends, so try not to keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself too much. Talk with your family about what you’re comfortable doing and not doing this holiday. If you’d like to opt-out of some traditions, let them know. Allow yourself to lean on family during this difficult time.

Be kind to yourself

Dealing with the death of a loved one is not easy. Give yourself quiet time when you need to, and don’t be ashamed to cry — it’s good for you. But do try to resist the urge to avoid the holidays altogether.

Sometimes grief urges you to be alone when you should be around family and friends. Set limits for yourself, but try not to spend too much time alone during the holidays. That can make your sadness and grief worse.

How long does grief last?

There is no set timeline for how long grief lasts for any person. Of course, if you're in the early stages of mourning, it may take a longer time to feel better. For example, a recent study found that people going through grief tend to feel somewhat better after about six months.

Many of your grieving symptoms, like constant sadness, may even go away completely after 1 or 2 years. However, every person is different. Many people say that their grief can feel easier at times and then worse before feeling better again. For other people, grief may make them feel somewhat stuck.

Prolonged grief disorder (PGD), also called "complicated grief", is when you can't stop thinking about the person who died, so much so that it is difficult for you to function in everyday life.

If you feel overwhelmed by grief at Christmas, grief counseling, also known as bereavement therapy, which is specifically for coping with loss, may be able to help.

Remember your loved ones at Christmas

While grieving, remember loved ones at Christmas. It may seem strange to do things that remind you of your loved one who passed away during the holidays, but it might make you feel better to honor their memory. Here are a few great ways to remember your loved ones at the most festive time of year.

  • Light a candle in honor of your loved one.
  • Volunteer at a charity that meant a lot to your deceased family member.
  • Display a bouquet of your loved one’s favorite flowers.
  • Make a holiday scrapbook full of happy memories of them.
  • Make a new tradition of visiting your loved one’s gravesite during the holidays.
  • Create or buy a new tree topper or ornament in honor of your loved one.
  • Have a moment of silence or holiday toast to honor your loved one.
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