Managing the Holidays While Grieving Can Be Difficult

No matter what your religion or lack thereof, the holiday time can be most trying. The holidays stir up memories of the past, evoke powerful feelings, and force us to compare our life situation to that of the perfect family portrayed on television.

Memories of the past are tied to this time of year. Many people have traditions which are sanctioned by religion, but many also have traditions which are more secular in nature. The gift giving, the taking of vacations, the sharing of special times or activities — may have been part of the joy that we had with a lost loved one. Getting through the first season can nightmarish and the next ones may be a bit more moderate, but still quite painful emotionally. All of these memories of good times and rituals shared together may raise bittersweet thoughts and feelings.

More Than Memories of Holiday Cheer

Not only good times shared, but bad times shared may be dredged up. If we are like many people, the holidays may have been unpleasant for economic or emotional reasons. In this case, we may feel guilty that we couldn’t have provided better for our son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother.  Thus, the holidays are times of great emotional intensity to start with, and a death may build on this foundation and add to the feelings of loss that arise from memories.

Thus, it is not memories alone that are dredged up to haunt us, it is the feelings that may accompany these memories, that also cause pain.  Powerful emotions are evoked by the holidays and these are added to our intensity, generated by our loss.  We may experience a whole range of feelings which are hard for us to tolerate.  Sadness is difficult enough, but loneliness, emptiness, helplessness and vulnerability are even harder to manage.  Given the stereotype of the American character, these emotions are almost opposite and often considered negative in our society.

Another reason that the holidays can be disappointing is that we are bombarded with stereotypes of the perfect family, experiencing nothing but joy and warmth on a white Christmas.  This myth has been commercialized and used to sell merchandise in mass quantities.  It is therefore a force to be reckoned with and one that we can’t escape.  We are made to compare the reality of our loss-filled family life with the myth of perfect family closeness that we see on television.  This painful comparison is often unsatisfactory to even healthy families, but families who have sustained losses are even further from the mark.

Tips for Managing the Holidays While Grieving

There are a good many ways to facilitate getting through difficult periods of time. Although first, it’s important to have a mind set that you are not helpless.  We may feel helpless and hopeless, but that doesn’t mean we really are.  Once you get it firmly established that you can do some things to make life more bearable, then you can get busy and implement some of the following suggestions.

First, express the feelings as they arise.  It’s not only OK to grieve, but it is important to grieve.  Grief is a process that may be painful, but it has healing qualities.  So tolerate the difficult emotions and express them to yourself and others.  Anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness, vulnerability, helplessness, emptiness and others may all be present.  The mourning process can be very painful because of the intensity and range of feelings that arise.  It is healthier to let them be and not try to sweep them under the rug.

Having said this, it is also important to modify the statement by adding that it’s not OK to express these feelings in a way that harms yourself or others.  It isn’t the feelings themselves that can cause damage; it’s what we do with them or how we express them that needs to be monitored.  In doing so, be aware of the burden you place on others.  You can’t ask people to help you beyond their own ability to tolerate feelings.  Thus, we can’t expect friends and relatives to be continuously receptive.  We have to be aware of their limits.  There is no point in being bitter, if they simply can’t keep listening and absorbing your grief.  Ask from them only what they can give or you may be sorely disappointed.

Another way you can help yourself through the holidays is to honor the memory of your loved one.  Acknowledge their importance to you and make up ceremonies that express that awareness.  Through thoughts, feelings, traditions and ceremonies you can express some of the grief that you feel and gain some comfort.  Rituals may be easier for some of your friends to share, so make use of them.   Or you may find comfort in developing new traditions that honor the memory of your loved one.  A contribution to charity, a day of volunteering in honor of your memories, or a visit to the grave may have some use to you.

Planning activities and ways to stay busy or keep from being too busy, can give you the right mixture of activity and freedom from unnecessary stress.  You can review your own needs and decide how to plan.  If you can’t stand the idea of being alone, you could plan activities with others.  If you find being alone valuable and your holiday season is usually set at a frantic pace with social obligations, you could reconsider and cancel some of the get-togethers.

Find a way to soothe yourself.  When under stress, we need to be willing to indulge ourselves sometimes.  We each have differing ways to calm our troubled souls.  Think about what you have historically done to take care of yourself.  Go ahead and give in to some soothing activities as long as they aren’t destructive to self or others.  For example, if eating is a significant soother, then you may want to let yourself gain a few pounds over the holidays and take off the weight afterwards when the emotional strains are moderated.  However, if you have a weight problem, you may find it harmful to your self-esteem to gain weight.  You’ll have to balance the pro’s and con’s of each method of soothing.

Other Ideas To Think About

First, it is necessary to get beyond the myth of a blissful, perfect holiday season. We have to realize that many people are unhappy during this time and they are unhappy for many different reasons.  Grief and sadness may intervene and need to be attended to.  This isn’t unusual or bad.  So accept what is for you and deal with it; avoid denying what’s going on and you’ll be able to use the above techniques to cope.

Another useful idea is that we need to express as much emotion as we can tolerate without becoming overwhelmed.   So, on the one hand, it is important to express and explore our emotions rather than avoid becoming aware of them.  While on the other hand, we have to use some soothing techniques to help us manage so that we don’t totally lose our balance.  Too much flooding with feelings can destroy our equilibrium.  So find the balance that fits for you and express whatever you can, while also being kind to yourself through using your own unique soothers.
An additional significant idea is that you have to individualize all of the advice you get.  That is, there are no correct formulas for managing in difficult times.  Look at the ways you function as an individual and tailor all of the friendly and professional advise so that it fits your situation and your needs.  Don’t sacrifice your uniqueness to a formula or to what someone else claims to be the right way.

You might consider another concept that can be helpful.  Being said is often confused with being depressed.  There are some quick concepts that help differentiate.  Sadness is not the same as depression.  And being sad won’t make you depressed.  Here are some comparisons:


Can be shared with others
Humor interspersed
Periods of energy
Light at the end of the tunnel


Is isolating, withdrawn
Little or no sense of humor
Tired, deflated
No hope, pessimistic

There is another dualism that should be explored. Useful, purposeful action around planning satisfying activities is different from driven, frenzied action, which we might conveniently call hyperactivity:

Purposeful Action

Use of intelligence
Mindful of our needs
Feelings are expressed


Unconscious, unthought out
Symbolic or unaware
Feelings are avoided; actions take their place


The holidays may not be a time of perfect bliss and your true feelings may be quite different from the mythology that commercial television and the media portray. Give yourself some leeway to be yourself and to accept whatever your feelings tell you.  In fact, the holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of the year for mourners and for many other folks.  However, you can understand and act, so that you are not helpless, and you can creatively cope with whatever the season brings to you.  While no one enjoys pain, you can take this opportunity to face your troubles and to work on them in a way that can be creative and meaningful.

Copyright, 2010

by Jerry Rothman, MSW, PhD