The holiday season is a wonderful time for surrounding yourself with loved ones while sharing meals and partaking in happy traditions. But if you’ve recently lost someone close, it can also be a time when feelings of grief are intensified.
Spending the first holiday season without a treasured loved one can be complicated and messy ― but it can be done while still enjoying parts of the season. We asked an expert how to manage emotions during what’s otherwise considered “the most wonderful time of the year.” Here are some practical tips for those grieving this holiday season:
1. Share memories with loved ones.
A loved one’s absence becomes more glaring when no one speaks about them. Instead of trying to avoid talking about your deceased loved one, make a point to share memories and stories about them during gatherings of friends and family, said licensed psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, a program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
Mendez recommended focusing on funny stories and remembering it’s OK to laugh and enjoy those memories with one another. This is a totally normal and healthy way to deal with your sadness.
“It is important to talk about the feelings, share stories about the loved one, share memories and recall the loved one’s life in a positive frame that celebrates and honors the person’s life,” Mendez told HuffPost.
2. Blend old traditions with new ones.
Honoring the life of a deceased loved one can mean feeling obligated to continue traditions they passed down to you (like making a specific meal on Christmas, for example). But don’t feel beholden to them if these traditions were never your favorites. Instead, take one or two traditions you treasured and combine them with new ones to help you move on, Mendez advised.
“Hold the values and traditions that involved the loved one, but also create new experiences that promote healing and movement forward,” she said. “Engage in a balanced existence of blending the memories with the present and allow for both grief and resolve to co-exist.”
3. Cut back on seasonal stressors.
The holidays are full of stressful obligations, like social gatherings, gift giving, cooking and volunteering. Give yourself permission to cut back on your commitments in order to have space to heal.
While withdrawing entirely and “sitting out” the holiday season would not be a healthy option, definitely take breaks and space from any events or obligations that cause you undue stress, Mendez said. People may look forward to your holiday cookies each year or hope you come to the office party, but you should also know that they will understand if you pull back considering your loss.
However, Mendez stressed that it’s important to stay in touch with your support system and communicate your plans if you choose to skip any activities or gatherings.
“It will be important for others to know how you are feeling and connect with you in a manner that feels right for you,” she said. “Consider partaking in activities that do not activate discomfort, heighten unnecessary stress or trigger painful emotions that cannot be readily managed.”
4. Give mental health support a try.
Mendez recommended seeking treatment or support to help you if the grief feels unbearable.
“Join support groups, attend lectures or faith-community events and seek professional support from a therapist,” she advised.
Connecting with others who share your experiences can help you avoid isolation, which could increase the risk of depression, Mendez added. Accepting and addressing your loss is an important step in the grieving process. And while the holidays are a busy time, your mental and emotional well-being are too important to neglect.
5. Pay attention to possible unhealthy coping techniques.
Mendez said the holiday season can intensify feelings of grief and loss, so be aware of your own emotions ― and reactions to them ― during this time.
Exhaustion, loss of appetite and feelings of apathy and hopelessness can be signs that your grief might be putting you at risk for depression. Grief experts warn this could lead to unhealthy behaviors, like excess alcohol consumption, withdrawing from social situations or self harm.
The first holiday without your loved one is difficult. While nothing will ever replace your loss, taking care of yourself, spending time remembering your loved one, and enjoying the traditions of the holiday season can alleviate some of the pain while helping you progress in your grieving.
“Understand that grief is a complex multifaceted experience that changes over time and varies from loss to loss,” Mendez said. “It takes time to adapt to the sudden and profound experience of a loved one’s death. ... Grief is the process of adapting to change created by the irrevocable loss of the loved one.”
And remember: While your celebrations may never be the same, they can still be joyful as you remember your loved one.