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Dealing with the Holiday Blues

Published on Dec. 15, 2020

Managing the Holidays When You’re Experiencing Grief

Managing the Holidays When You’re Experiencing Grief

What has been coined “the most wonderful time of the year” doesn’t always feel that way for many. Filled celebrations largely centered on themes of family and togetherness, the holiday season is especially difficult for people grieving the loss of a loved one or absence of family. This void can feel even more exaggerated during a season that pressures us to have heightened expectations. 

The 2020 holiday season may feel especially challenging for many. “It’s been a year of constant change, and for many, significant losses in both physical and psychological experiences,” shares Dr. Michael Lucido, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Munson Healthcare Charlevoix Hospital. “If there is unresolved grief, it is worsened by the stresses during this year.” 

If you’re grieving any sort of loss, the holidays only seem to further expand the divide between how you think you should feel versus how you are really feeling.  But there are ways to honor your grief during the holiday season and maybe even find a sense of peace.

Types of Grief

When you hear the term “grief,” mourning the death of a loved one might immediately come to mind. Losing a spouse, close family member, or dear friend is a heart-wrenching process that we all eventually endure throughout our lifetime. Feelings of intense loss can be felt for other reasons as well, including:

Man coping with grief

  • a recent separation or divorce
  • a family feud
  • a miscarriage
  • a job loss
  • isolation from loved ones due to COVID-19
  • loss of a pet

However you have experienced loss this past year, it’s important to acknowledge this loss and give yourself some extra breathing space and self-care this holiday season. 

Exploring Your Grief

While grief is a universal experience, how we wear our grief varies from person to person. Some may express their feelings outwardly through bouts of crying or anger. Others might grieve on the inside, appearing normal or “perfectly fine” to the outside world while inwardly experiencing feelings of deep sadness or depression. Other symptoms of grief can include:

grieving person in bed

  • mood swings
  • sleep disturbances
  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • loss of appetite
  • extreme fatigue
  • difficulty getting through everyday tasks
  • the desire to be alone

When grief shows up is also different from person to person. While it might immediately kick in for some people, delayed grief and numbness are also very common. Delayed grief is perfectly normal, and may stem from one of several stages of grief, explains Dr. Lucido. The five stages of grief - first popularized by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying – include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

“These are not sequential nor is there a set time for each,” Dr. Lucido says.

"Grief has no time limit,” adds Bonnie Cleland-Olsen, LMSW, a counselor with Women’s and Children’s services. “It’s ok to be gentle on ourselves and allow ourselves to go through the process of grieving.”

Getting Through the Holidays

Grief is a rough road to walk at any time, but the holidays tend to amplify feelings of loss and sorrow. With reminders of family, joy, and togetherness all around you, it can feel difficult to escape – and especially without turning to coping tools like excessive drinking or isolation. But there are ways to avoid feeling worse. While you can certainly expect this holiday season to feel and look different, there are many ways to get through it with self-compassion and maybe even better peace of mind.

Acknowledging griefAcknowledge your feelings. Whether you feel sad, angry, or numb, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Acknowledging whatever you are feeling in the moment is actually key to feeling better in the long term. True—it’s certainly tempting to avoid your emotions because facing them doesn't exactly feel good. However, sitting with your feelings helps you to move through your grief so you can begin to heal.

Accept your new reality. This holiday season may look a little (or a lot) different this year, and that’s okay! Maybe you don't put up the tree because looking it will intensify your sadness. Perhaps you avoid shopping and focus on curbside pick-up to avoid upsetting triggers you might see or hear in the store. Or maybe it means turning down an invite and enjoying a quiet holiday meal by yourself or with a small group. Remember that you get to decide to what degree you celebrate the season…even if that means no plans at all. 

Address COVID-19 Today (ACT). COVID-19 has introduced a whole new set of challenges. For some, the source of grief is caused directly by the pandemic – perhaps you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 or experienced a job loss as a result. Even if the pandemic isn’t the root of your grief, it has still likely added to your stress in some way and deepened the grief you’re already feeling. Take some time to explore your feelings and allow yourself to grieve any losses that have come as a result of this pandemic. It’s good to explore these feelings even if you don’t think they’re at the center of your grief.

Express your needs. Sometimes the hardest words are, “I need help.” But leaning on a trusted person to help get you through is an important part of the grieving process. This doesn't mean you have to share with everyone – whom you choose to confide in is solely up to you. "Practice these words alone or with someone you trust,” says Cleland-Olsen.

virtual support groupJoin a grief group or seek support through counseling. Find a trusted therapist you can talk to (many counselors offer virtual support during this time) or squeeze in some extra sessions with your therapist if you are already seeing one. Consider joining a support group as well. The most invaluable support often comes directly from people who are going through a similar experience. Connect with others through one of our Munson Healthcare Hospice Support Groups.

Help others. Acknowledging feelings and expressing your needs are key steps to getting through this time, but healthy distractions are still a welcome way to get through the day. Consider signing up to volunteer (even remotely). Purchase a gift for someone in need or help out a neighbor who could use a shoveled walkway, a few grocery items, or even a friendly wave. Being of service to others gives us a sense of connectedness, which sparks feelings of fulfillment or even joy – the same feelings that can feel impossible to achieve in isolation.

Putting up winter holiday decorationsStart a new tradition. If you are feeling up to it, why not try out something brand new? Turn on a comedy you haven't seen in years rather than the holiday tearjerker. Find a great podcast or audiobook that helps you to avoid holiday songs. Whip up different holiday meal, or maybe you replace the traditional holiday fare altogether with a favorite meal. Put up winter decorations that embrace the new season and feel relevant past the holidays. Go for a walk and take in the winter landscape. Jump on a Zoom call with a friend.

Remember that grief is incredibly common – and magnified – during the holidays. You are not alone! If you need extra help, many options are available.

Attend a Virtual Grief Support Group

Connect with a Counselor

Our Resilience Toolkit can also help guide you through difficult emotions. Included in the toolkit:

  • Vocabulary to help identify your real feelings
  • A worksheet to help build your personal stress-reduction plan
  • Ideas for healthy coping strategies that you can practice anywhere
  • Tips for building long-term resilience (aka inner strength)

Resilience Toolkit

If you or someone you know has thoughts of harming yourself or suicide, please call the Community Crisis Number at 833-295-0616, National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or Munson Healthcare Behavioral Health Services at 800-662-6766.


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