Let’s just get right to it: it’s okay to feel sad over the holidays.
When all is going well in our lives, December is a magical time of year. You’ve got Hanukkah, you’ve got Christmas, you’ve got Kwanzaa. You’ve got New Year’s Eve to top it all off.
It’s a time to get everyone in the family together, free from work and obligations. To bust out grandma’s heirloom ornaments and create a beautiful, chaotic masterpiece of a tree. To cozy up with a hot mug of cocoa and just sink into the once-a-year quiet of the holidays.
But sometimes, life throws you curveballs. For so many different reasons, many of us are heading into this holiday season carrying an immense feeling of loss.
Perhaps you experienced some kind of bereavement recently. Perhaps you’re feeling a new wave of grief over a loss that happened years ago.
Unfortunately, grief operates on its own schedule—one that doesn’t involve taking a year-end vacation.
Navigating the holidays after a loss
If you’re going through a big loss, the holidays can be plain overwhelming.
Getting together for the annual family celebration might just feel like a painful reminder of how much has changed.
Your mind might still be occupied with all the logistics of dealing with loss.
And on top of all that, the regular festivities can sometimes create a lot of pressure to just act happy. It’s really hard to feel like the only person in the room who’s not swept up in the merriment.
When loved ones don’t know what to say
On top of that, people don’t always know what to do when someone they care about is grieving. We live in a highly death-avoidant culture: we hate so much as thinking about death, never mind actually talking about it.
Sometimes, friends and family might shy away from talking to you about what you’re going through because they’re afraid of somehow making things worse. (This might happen even if the loss you’re experiencing doesn’t involve death. Our culture is just really bad at having uncomfortable conversations!)
On the flip side, some loved ones end up getting a bit too involved. The “fix-it” types among your friends and family might be hell-bent on making your pain go away. They might offer up unsolicited advice about how you “should” heal, or insist on reminding you how strong you are. It comes from a good place, but it can end up being a bit much.
And let’s be real—sometimes, people are just plain insensitive. It can be a source of anxiety just worrying about how people might put their feet in their mouths around you.
All of this can end up making grief a very isolating and lonely experience. Those sentiments are often amplified around the holidays, when our culture tells us we’re supposed to be feeling the exact opposite way: happy, carefree, and connected with friends and family.
Our tips for getting through the holidays
If you’re dreading the holidays this year, here’s some good news: you’re not alone. The holidays are a difficult time for many people, and that’s okay.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind while navigating the holiday season.
Put yourself first
First and foremost, give yourself permission to grieve the way you need to. That means choosing to put yourself first, even if that feels uncomfortable at first.
If you’re like most of our clients, you probably feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. You might feel hyper-responsible for the comfort and happiness of all the people around you. The thought of taking a pass on holiday festivities, or even just phoning it in and bringing some store-bought cookies instead of your usual show-stopping Bûche de Noël, might make you feel like you’re letting people down.
So we’re here to tell you: it’s okay to prioritize your own needs, especially right now. We promise the world will keep on turning.
Tune into your needs
Everyone processes loss differently. For one person, quality time with family members might be a huge source of comfort. But another person might just want a little solitude and (frankly) the time and space to cry it out.
In other words, grief is a reminder to check in with ourselves. A lot of us are used to ignoring our own needs, or putting them behind the needs of others.
Make it a point to consciously check in with yourself and ask yourself how you’re doing throughout the day. You could try doing some brief mindfulness meditation (we’ve linked a few below). You could do a little journaling. You could just take a moment to breathe deeply. Whatever your strategy, now is the time to get in touch with your own needs.
Be blunt about what you need
Someday, maybe we’ll live in a culture that’s a lot more open and honest about death. But for now, your loved ones may need some help in understanding how to support you. That means it may fall to you to initiate open and honest communication with them.
Be upfront and explicit about what you want and need from them right now. If you want your friends to send you a check-in text during your family dinner, ask them to do that directly. If you feel like they’re avoiding the topic of your recent loss, ask them to initiate more conversations about it. If you’re struggling to get dinner on the table just for yourself right now, ask them to bring over some meals to reheat, or get some extra help preparing food for the big day.
It’s okay to ask for help. Your loved ones might not know what to do right now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about you; it probably just means they’re out of their depth. Help them understand how to support you. Or, if having these conversations is overwhelming, try sending them some of our favourite resources (linked below).
It’s also okay to feel okay
A final note: if you’re feeling excited for the holidays despite a recent loss, that’s okay too. Grief is a mysterious thing; it comes and goes in waves, and it takes many different forms. Feeling happy at this time of year doesn’t mean you’re not still grieving, or that you didn’t love your departed loved one.
Don’t feel guilty about feeling moments of happiness, love, joy, comfort, coziness—all of the positive experiences we associate with this time of year. Life goes on, even in the wake of death and loss.
Resources we love
There’s a whole wide world of media out there to help people through grief, and not just over the holidays. Here are a few resources we love.
Headspace: A mindful approach to grief
The mindfulness meditation app Headspace has a great article on processing grief over the holidays. It features some tips like the ones we shared above, as well as some meditations and other mindfulness exercises that you can use to tune into your needs.
Terrible, Thanks for Asking: A podcast to help you process
Terrible, Thanks for Asking is a fantastic podcast about grief. Aside from their regular, awesome episodes, they also do a yearly “Happyish Holidays” special, where listeners call in and share their stories of terrible, awful, no-good holiday seasons. That might not sound like the most fun — but when you’re feeling kind of terrible over the holidays, it can help to be reminded that other people are having a terrible time too.
Some helpful articles for clueless loved ones
Are your friends and family floundering when it comes to supporting you through grief? Are you feeling too drained to draw them a map? Thankfully, a lot of people have written a lot of guides to supporting loved ones through loss. Here are a few that you can casually point people to: