How to Survive Christmas Holiday Grief

Tips to help the bereaved cope with the Christmas holiday season

Photo © Kate Hiscock/Moment Open/Getty Images

The Christmas season can prove particularly difficult to someone mourning the death of a loved one. Not only are the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday all around us and nearly impossible to avoid, but the traditions, rituals, and gatherings we often associate with the holiday season also tend to emphasize the fact that a beloved family member or friend is no longer with us, compounding our feelings of loss. This article offers five tips to help you cope with the Christmas holiday season if you're grieving the death of a loved one.

Give Yourself the Gift of Permission

The pressure the bereaved feel to act a certain way when mourning a death adds an unfortunate and unnecessary burden to those grieving a loss at any time, but this is particularly true during the Christmas season. The joy and laughter typically associated with this holiday can create a sense that sadness and crying are out of place and might spoil the holiday for others.

If you find yourself this Christmas season feeling that you must conceal your tears or put on a brave face (or, conversely, not laugh or enjoy yourself at times), then you need to give yourself the gift of permission, i.e., tell yourself it's okay to grieve in your own way. Despite societal pressures -- real or imagined -- or the misperception that people follow the same stages of grief, there simply is no correct way to mourn the loss of a loved one. And just as death never takes a holiday, neither does grief, so you should do whatever you need to do in order to cope.

Practice Self-Love

Grief is hard work and takes not only an emotional toll on those mourning a death but also a physical one. Often, the bereaved feel exhausted because of poor eating habits, a lack of exercise and/or inadequate sleep. Unfortunately and somewhat ironically, holiday revelry often causes these same problems for people who aren't grieving a death, which means Christmas can exacerbate these effects in the bereaved.

If that describes you, then practice some self-love during the holiday by paying attention to your physical needs. If you plan to attend a holiday party, tell the host or hostess ahead of time that you might leave early if you feel tired and need some sleep (and make sure you drive separately so you can depart whenever you wish). Instead of binging at the holiday buffet, practice these six ways to eat healthy during the holidays. And even moderate exercise will help you sleep better and lower your stress level, so make sure you take your dog for a walk or ask a friend to stroll with you in the park or a local mall.

Confront Your Fear

Similar to Thanksgiving, we usually associate the Christmas holiday with happy memories of family members and friends, and the many traditions surrounding our particular seasonal celebrations. Unfortunately, after the death of a loved one, those same rituals and traditions can become a source of pain for the bereaved. Where once decorating a Christmas tree was a cherished, time-honored family activity, for example, that simple box of ornaments can now become a grief landmine that triggers waves of sadness and tears as memories flood our minds and hearts.

If you're worried or feel afraid that you won't be able to "forget" your departed loved one during the holidays, then you should understand that you can't and shouldn't even try. Instead of letting the fear that you'll start remembering your loved one and feeling sad dictate your holiday, empower yourself by incorporating his or her memory into your Christmas holiday plans. For example, hang a single ornament -- whether existing or a new one that you buy or make -- that best reminds you of your loved one in a place of honor on your Christmas tree, or place your favorite photograph of your loved one and a lit candle in a quiet spot that signifies his or her presence in your heart throughout the holiday. Deliberately taking actions like these helps us confront our fears, can prove remarkably cathartic and helps us find moments of comfort and even joy during the Christmas season.

End the Conspiracy of Silence

Following the death of a loved one, our friends, family members, coworkers and others often struggle with how best to comfort and console the bereaved. Sincerely hoping to make us feel better during our time of grief, those around us also fear doing or saying something that will make us cry or trigger sad memories of our departed loved one. The net result often creates a "conspiracy of silence" in which nobody mentions or uses the name of the deceased around us -- almost as if her or she never existed -- which can compound our grief.

If you sense this might happen in your social circles, then you should help not only your acquaintances but also yourself by telling those around you that it's okay to share memories of the deceased and to use his or her name openly during the Christmas holiday, if desired. Once given permission to help them overcome their social awkwardness, most people will readily share their personal stories and memories of your loved one. Doing so not only acknowledges the special wonderful qualities of your beloved but also reinforces that you are not alone in your grief and that those around you love and care for you.

Accept Your Reality

As noted above, the grief experienced after the death of a loved one creates genuine physical, emotional and mental effects upon us that should not be ignored. What this means is that, as you progress along your grief journey, you likely will discover moments during the holiday season when you lack your usual energy and/or your typical enjoyment of your Yuletide traditions, among other things. In other words, you're not your "normal" self right now.

Therefore, you should determine and know your limits ahead of time. For example, if the thought of battling crowded malls and department stores to purchase Christmas gifts feels overwhelming this year, then consider buying those gifts online. If you traditionally travel across town or across the country to spend Christmas with family members or friends but don't feel you're up to it right now, then it's perfectly acceptable to say so and make other plans more in keeping with your mood and energy level. And if you wish to limit your social activities this Christmas season simply because you would like to be alone, then know that this is entirely normal, too. Anyone who truly loves you and knows the pain you're dealing with will surely understand.

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