How to Cope When it Doesn’t Feel Like “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
It’s that time of year when we are inundated with songs about “the most wonderful time of t
he year”; songs that seem to suggest we are all supposed to feel ‘holly and jolly’. They play in the stores and on the radio for weeks.
This time of year typically starts before Thanksgiving and goes until the start of the new year. That is about 6 weeks (or more) of being bombarded with messages and symbols of happiness and joy; 6 weeks of misery for those who are heartbroken.
The wishes and greetings extended to others even include saying things like “Merry“ or “Happy”. I recently sent a message to a friend whose dad died in October. I said “Happy Thanksgiving” and then proceeded to express my gratitude for her friendship. After hitting send, I realized my error. Yes, I’m a grief counselor, but I am a human first and I messed up! I sent a follow up message acknowledging that maybe her thanksgiving was not “happy” since this was the first one since her dad died.
We can get so caught up in the societal norms of extending these greetings, without realizing, that for some, this is a very painful time of year. These greetings and many of the songs played during the holiday season tend to suggest that we are supposed to be feeling cheerful, pleasant, or festive. If you have experienced a recent loss, or even if the loss is not recent, the holidays can be anything BUT cheerful, festive or pleasant…they might downright suck! The turkey and mistletoe might not “make your season bright”.
The holidays can remind us of a different time; a time when our loved one was with us, and this can really stir up our grief. As I said, this isn’t only for those who have experienced a recent loss. The loss might have happened years ago and we may have felt like we were coping, when all of a sudden WHAM, we are hit with a wave of grief. This may be expected or it may be unexpected. Either way, it is painful and uncomfortable. And to make it worse, we are surrounded by messages in our society that this is a happy time. This can lead us to feel like something is wrong with us.
Have you ever tried to put on the “happy face” when it didn’t match what was going on inside? How did it go? It was likely very draining or hard to do.
So how can you cope during this time of year?
Be gentle with yourself.
I intentionally listed this one first. We are so often in a place where we hold ourselves to a high standard; that we “must” or “should” feel a certain way, especially during the holidays. Well, I’m here to tell you that “should” is shit! (Yes, I said it!). You wouldn’t “should” on your friends, so don’t “should” on yourself. If you aren’t feeling all ‘holly and jolly’, that’s okay! You have experienced a loss and your heart is broken; all you might want is for your loved one to be with you this holiday season.
This piece of advice is not only for those who have had a recent loss. I remember that the holidays the first 2 years after my dad died were especially hard for me. As the years passed, I found ways to make him a part of those holidays even though he was not physically present, and while I still experienced moments of sadness they were not as overwhelming as the first couple of years. In 2015, my daughter was born and I found myself feeling overwhelming sadness around the holidays again. It had been 6 years since my dad died, yet the pain and sadness felt almost as intense as they did initially. I realized that part of what I was feeling was a new wave of sadness because I now had a daughter and I wished my dad could be with us as we celebrated her first holidays.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings.
This really goes hand in hand with being gentle with yourself. Many times, we try to suppress or hide our feelings, particularly when they are uncomfortable or distressing. What ultimately ends up happening is that those feelings bubble up and can come out in ways, and at times, that are often not ideal.
The other side of this is that you may find yourself feeling some joy, which can often lead to feelings of guilt (especially if the loss is more recent). All of your feelings are part of the normal and natural experience we have on a daily basis; for some reason we end up being more hard on ourselves and judge our feelings when we have had a loss. Allow yourself to cry, or laugh, and feel exactly how you feel in the moment…and the moment after that…and the moment after that…
Let others help you/Ask for help.
You might be cringing reading this one; it can be hard to do. The holidays might be tough for you and you might have several people in your life who want to help, they just might not know how to help or what to do.
It doesn’t matter if the loss is more recent or not, your world stopped when the loss happened and everyone else’s kept on moving (remember the error I made…perfect example). You may have to remind even some of your closest support that you are having a difficult time during the holidays. Let them know what you need, whether that is calling you to check in on you, actually being present with you, or even talking about your loved one and sharing memories or stories.
Some of the people in our support networks often make assumptions (and we all know what assumptions do…) that we don’t want to talk about our loved ones, or that bringing our loved ones up will make us feel sad. Well, I hate to break the news, you probably already feel sad and bringing up your loved ones, or not bringing them up, isn’t going to change that. Everyone’s needs are different, so identify what you need and either ask someone for help, or let them if they are offering something that might be helpful for you.
Have a plan.
The holidays will not be the same after a loss, and for this reason some may dread this time of year. Things have changed and while that can be very uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to be all “bad”. Part of working through our losses is creating a "new normal"; this includes the holidays.
While everyone does things a little differently, create a plan for what you want and need this holiday season. You might even decide to create a Plan B, just in case…things can change, so try to stay flexible. It can be very helpful to have a plan so things do not feel even worse.
What this might look like, for example, is creating a plan for how you are going to handle any holiday parties you might be invited to. Do you want to drive yourself in case you need to leave early? Do you want to go with a friend so you have company? Do you need to say “no” to the invitation? And if so, how are you going to say it?
Find a way to memorialize.
After a loss, you may want to find ways to honor the memory of your loved one. This can be a way to integrate the loss into your life. The holidays offer another opportunity to create memorials and pay tribute. One idea might be to light a candle every night during the holidays (for safety, I like to suggest the use of flameless candles). I did this after my dad died as a way to feel like he was there with me during this time; it’s been 10 years and I sometimes still do this. Other ideas might be to serve a favorite holiday dish your loved one enjoyed, make a memorial art project that can be displayed during the holidays, or make a donation to a charity in their memory.
Sometimes the loss we grieve is in the context of a relationship that was less than ideal. If that is the case for you, then this coping strategy might not feel helpful for you.
Create a new tradition.
Holidays are often filled with lots of traditions. When we have experienced a loss, sometimes these traditions bring us comfort, while sometimes they are painful reminders of the loss.
If the tradition is one that brings you comfort, keep doing it. Sometimes we have to make alterations to that tradition as a result of the loss. For example, my dad used to read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to his grand kids; my mom is now the one who reads it.
It is also okay to create new traditions. For example, you may decide to leave an empty place at the table, or go out to eat instead of preparing a holiday meal.
Grief can be exhausting. Add to that the stress of the holidays and you have a recipe for feeling completely overwhelmed, and I don’t just mean emotionally. One of the many ways grief can manifest is physically. This can show up as pain or tightness in parts of the body, GI upset, reduced immune function, sleep disruptions, and more. It is important to take care of ourselves after a loss and this is especially important when there are additional stressors, such as the holidays.
Now, I’m not just talking about pampering yourself with things like massages and bubble baths, although that may be an important part of the #selfcare that you practice. I am also talking about doing things like getting a good night sleep and taking naps if you feel tired; exercising, even if that means you only have the energy for a short walk; and doing things like meditations or mindfulness practices.
You might be wondering how on earth I can suggest that you feel grateful after a loss. And I get it, I really do. I’m not suggesting that you feel grateful about the loss. I am suggesting that you find ways to express #gratitude in general. This can be a powerful tool in healing after a loss, and it might be something you find helpful as you try to cope through the holidays.
Studies have shown that gratitude can help improve our psychological and even physical well-being. At a time when our physical and psychological well-being is often compromised, expressing gratitude can help us minimize the impact of the distressing emotions we often experience and can improve relationships with those who are still with us.
Some suggestions for ways to express gratitude include: writing a letter to someone expressing gratitude for something they have done for you or thanking them for some aspect you appreciate about them (you can send the letter if you wish but you don’t have to in order to reap the benefits); keeping a gratitude journal where you daily write down things you are grateful for; or thanking someone mentally (or verbally) who has done something nice for you.
This is not an instant “fix”…nothing really ever is, yet the long term benefits of this practice are undeniable.
I know that there are only a few more weeks left in the holiday season this year. I hope that these tips will help you over the next few weeks; these are gifts you can give to yourself. Hold on to this and re-read it next year if you find yourself experiencing a wave of grief.
For a list of other tangible ideas for how to cope with a loss during the holidays, click here.
(PS, I love this website…it has a lot of great resources and education about grief.)
If you feel you need additional support beyond friends and family, please reach out to a therapist. I am available to help those who live in North Carolina and Tennessee. Click here if you are interested in scheduling a session with me.