Holiday Grief: Influences on Family Dynamics

By now, we know the holidays can be a tricky/difficult time of the year for some; especially for those who are grieving. If you are greiving this holiday season, chances are you've spent a lot of time preparing for doing this holiday season without your loved one which is very necessary and helpful work to do. What is equally as important and may come as a surprise to you, is spending time exploring how you might navigate encountering new challenging family dynamics that may not have been present prior to your family's loss. These changes in your family dynamics either won't surface until the holidays or aren't as pronounced until the holiday festivities begin. Before I provide you with some tools to navigate potential difficult family dynamics, let's first talk about how grief influences family dynamics.

Grief's Influence On Family Dynamics

Did you know grief causes something commonly known as a ripple effect in our lives? Yes? Great! Let's talk about it. No? That's okay! Let's first define it and then talk about it!

What is the ripple effect of grief?

Imagine you're at your favorite outdoor spot with water. Picture yourself standing at the edge of the water and getting an urge to skip a rock. You look around for the perfect flat smooth rock that will glide across the top of the water. You've got it! You've found the perfect rock! You get yourself and the rock in the proper position and skip it across the water. After it makes it initial touch on the water, what do you notice afterwards? Ripples! Grief does the same! Now image grief as that rock; after the initial impact of grief (the loss of your loved one), there are many ripples that follow; impacting your surrounding world. Some examples may include but are not limited to:

  • Changes in your mental health/overall well-being

  • Changes within your friend group or other important relationships

  • Changes within your ability to engage in work

  • Changes in family dynamics

Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind with these examples. First, the ripple effect doesn't always create negative impacts. The impact of the friendship ripple may bring you closer to your friends as they are a great support throughout your process. In accordance with this, the other thing to keep in mind is that my intention of listing these examples is not to scare you or leave you feeling hopeless. The intention is to normalize your experience and let you know there is hope around the ripples that cause negative impacts and that the effects don't have to last forever.

While all the examples above are important, for the purpose of this blog I want to just focus on the family dynamics. Grief causes ripple effects in our lives at anytime of the year. However, those ripples can seem bigger and more impactful at particular times of the year, such as grief's ripple effect on family dynamics during the holidays. So what ripple effect does grief have on family dynamics? Keeping reading to explore and learn more!

Grief's Ripple Effect On Family Dynamics: Holiday Version

Grief can influence and change family dynamics in many different ways; challenging the way in which you may interact with your family. Below are a view examples of some grief elements contributing to the changes in family dynamics you may see and have to navigate during the holidays:

  • Differing expectations within your family of how to do the holidays and what traditions to carry on

  • Varying manifestations/presentations of grief and pacing of individaul grief journeys

  • The unexpected presence of triggers to grief on the actual day or while engaging in holiday festivities

  • Varying manifestations/presentations and navigation of triggers

Again, these examples are not meant to scare you and leave you feeling hopeless. The intention is to normalize your experience and give you hope around being proactive and finding tools to navigate these dynamics if they should arise. So let's talk about how to do that!

Tools To Navigate Challenging Holiday Family Dynamics

The most impactful tool to navigate whatever grief influenced family dynamics you may encounter this holiday season is to have a discussion with your family prior to the holiday festivities; identifying and discussing possible triggers and how to best navigate those triggers. However, I realize this may not be possible for some. If that's the case, not to worry! There is still hope! If you find yourself in this situation, I'd encourage you to determine your individual possible triggers and identify what skills/strategies you have in your back pocket to help you navigate those triggers. Once you know your possible triggers and the appropriate skills are in your back pocket, I then encourage you to identify and set (as needed) appropriate boundaries to honor how to best navigate and manage your own identified triggers.

Great! How do I begin this process? Wonderful question! Let's do an exercise.

Holiday Grief Exercise To Help Navigate Family Dynamics

If you've been reading my blogs each month, you know I love my exercises! I'd like to invite you to engage in the exercise below, allowing you to begin identifying your triggers and how to best navigate those this holiday season.

Explore and answer the following questions below:

  1. List all possible grief triggers related to your family holiday festivities (i.e. holiday traditions, decorations, songs, etc.); be specific!

  2. What sorts of emotions or experiences do (or could) these triggers bring up for you?

  3. What are some coping skills (i.e. breathing, listening to music, removing yourself from the environment) could you implement to help reground yourself, effectively manage the triggers, and allow you to honor your grief journey?

Don't feel like you need to have all these questions answer to their entirety. Even exploring/answering a few will leave you feeling more prepared. Want more guidance? Or interested in digging deeper into this work? Click below to schedule your FREE 20-30 minute consultation or your first grief counseling session with me, Brittany Squillace.

Regardless of where you are in your grief journey, all family dynamics are vulnerable to grief's ripple effect. Know you are not alone if you have to navigate challenging family dynamics this holiday season. Normalize this experience for yourself, take a deep breath, and utilize the exercise above to help you navigate family dynamics during the holidays while honoring your grief journey.

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

Brittany Squillace, MA, LMFT

Grief Counselor

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