Grief During the Holidays: Ways to Celebrate While Grieving

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Stuart Alan Anfang, MD Stuart Alan Anfang, MD View Profile
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Grief never takes a holiday.

Each year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of Americans die from disease and accidental death, including many from COVID-19 over the past few years, leaving behind loved ones and friends grieving during the holidays.

It’s only natural to experience a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness as you navigate the hustle and bustle of the holidays while grieving, notes Dr. Stuart Anfang, vice chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

The Holidays Can Exacerbate Grief

“Those feelings of grief, especially during Thanksgiving and the December holidays, often become more intense for those preparing to spend these joyous occasions for the first time without a spouse, child or other beloved family member or friend by their side,” says Dr. Anfang.

Grief and holidays can bring up a lot of feelings that are difficult to cope with, especially as the cheerfulness of the season surrounds you.

“Recognize that you are not alone, and that mixed or sad feelings during the holidays are not uncommon. Do not suffer in silence. Watch for the tendency to isolate or withdraw from others. Denying or bottling up your feelings—or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs—are worrisome signs,” says Dr. Anfang.

Make a Coping Strategy

Anticipation of the holidays can cause more stress than the holidays themselves.

Dr. Anfang notes that planning for the approaching holidays is the first step in developing your coping strategy, and there is no wrong or right way to deal with grief and the holidays.

Begin by making decisions that are comfortable for you and your family. Use your awareness that things are different to help you plan what makes sense. Holiday preparations, traditions, and family time may all different with grief.

It is also important to remember that your emotions and energy level are strongly connected. Good self-care routines are important as you prepare and deal with the holiday season. Get plenty of rest and pay attention to healthy eating. Use alcohol in moderation. Plan self-care activities that will feed your mind, body and spirit. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.

Additional tips from the American Psychological Association for making a plan that works for you include:

  • Are there some traditions you would rather not do because they are just too painful to relive? Why not introduce something new into your routine?
  • Do you want to celebrate in the same place and be reminded of your loved one? Maybe you might want to consider traveling this season instead of staying home.
  • Who are the people you want to be around? Enjoy their company when they invite you for a visit.
  • Can you handle an all-day celebration? Be flexible with yourself and let the host know you may only stay for a short while.

Accept Offers of Help

As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them.

“Remember, it’s okay and not a sign of weakness to ask for help, whether it’s help preparing some holiday treats, decorating the home, shopping, or just a shoulder to lean on,” says Dr. Anfang.

It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you. For example, serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them.

Together you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums, making or displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased.

Take Comfort in the Season of Giving

Many people also find solace in giving as it is the “season of giving,” notes Dr. Anfang.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), “it’s amazing how in times of grief, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others,” whether it’s a physical gift or doing something nice for others in need or who are also hurting. Many people volunteer during the holidays, such as serving meals at a local shelter or distributing toys to needy children.

Still, for some the holidays may offer a reprieve from sad feelings and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you.

Seek Support

“If you are noticing more significant symptoms causing impairment at work, school or home – problems with sleep, low energy, dramatic change in appetite or weight, inability to concentrate, frequent crying, easy irritability, thoughts of hurting yourself or wanting to die – that may be time to seek some professional evaluation.

A good place to start can be your primary care provider or a trusted clergy. Bottom line – help is available and do not suffer in silence,” says Dr. Anfang.

Learn more about behavioral health services at Baystate Health. If you or a loved one is in a mental health crisis, consider calling the 988 emergency line - the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides 24/7, free, and confidential support for people in a crisis and their loved ones. You can call or text 988.

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