Holiday Grief: Part I

It's that time of year again...the holidays! A time that is typically seen as joyous, nostalgic, and filled with merriment. For those who are grieving, the holidays look a little different and tend to carry a different tune. Grievers navigating the holidays may feel surrounded by an overwhelming amount of joy and expectations. Often leaving grievers wondering "How am I going to get through this season?" In this two part blog article, I will walk you through the challenges of grieving during the holidays, as well as discuss small things you can do this holiday season to acknowledge and navigate these challenges; allowing yourself to honor your grief journey.

Holiday Expectations

Christmas baking. Christmas decorating. Holiday shopping. Gift wrapping. Christmas movie (Hallmark or childhood classics) marathon. As I think about what the holidays look like for our family, these are the few of the many things that pop in my head. When you think of holiday traditions, what comes to mind? What emotions do you experience when thinking about those traditions? Most would say merriment, joy, excitement, nostalgia, contentment, etc. For those who are grieving, whether that's you or someone you know, these traditions can carry an overwhelming amount of expectations. Expectations around the holidays themselves and/or how to address one's grief journey during the holidays. Overwhelming holiday expectations may look like:

  • Expectations around how to show up at holiday parties/dinners and family gatherings

  • Expectations around how to engage in holiday festivities

  • Expectations around the grievers ability (or lack thereof) to experience joy during this time of year

  • Expectations around carrying on traditions established prior to the loss

Overwhelming grief journey expectations during the holidays may look like:

  • Expectations on the ability to "set aside" the grief for the holidays

  • Expectations around being "over" or needing to "move on" from the grief

"I pretend everything is okay but deep down, I'm hurting."

Often times the expectation of how to show up and engage in holiday festivities have grievers showing up in a way that seems to be easier for others to navigate; perceived happiness/joy/merriment. This expectation can stem from the thought that one should be able to "set aside" his/her grief for one day, one holiday party, one evening. Within these expectations, grievers are left in a position in which they aren't honoring their grief journey or don't believe it's okay for them to honor their grief journey. What do I mean by honoring your grief journey? This means showing up as you are; unapologetically. Whether that be showing up and quietly observing the festivities, showing up and experiencing moments of happiness and moments of sadness, or choosing to stay within the comfort of your own home and coping with the grief you may be experiencing. This means accepting and validating how the holidays may be influencing your holiday experience and adjusting as needed. How can you honor your grief journey this holiday season?

"Am I even allowed to experience joy during this time?"

The expectation of joy during the holidays can be experienced in two different ways:

  1. Joy overload

  2. Permission of joy

In the first experience, the amount of joy that comes with the holidays can feel extremely overwhelming for those who are greiving and actually increase the grief; making it difficult to experience holiday joy. This can result in grievers questioning, "Is something wrong with me?" While good intentioned, it's not uncommon for friends and family members to wonder the same.

In the second experience, grievers wonder if they're allowed to feel joy if they're grieving during the holidays. They might have thoughts similar to, "If I experience joy, does this mean I have forgotten my loved one?" or "Can I feel grief and joy at the same time?". The answers? No and yes! No, experiencing joy doesn't mean you've forgotten your loved one or miss them less. Yes, you can experience grief and joy at the same time (tune into Part II to learn how)! How has joy shown up for you while grieving during the holidays, if at all?

"The holidays just won't be the same without him/her."

Clients often wonder if they should continue to engage in the traditions they had when their loved one was still with them. They worry about having to do this for the fact that it just simply won't be the same without their loved one. In honoring our grief journey, we get to decide if we are ready to carry on traditions, pause them, or add a twist to the original tradition. How will you choose to address holiday traditions?

Regardless of where you are in your grief journey this holiday season, know that you are where you're meant to be!

Here's to living a better life as your best self!

Brittany Squillace, MA, LAMFT

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