How To Deal With Grief If It's Your First Holiday Without A Loved One

For Americans who have lost someone to COVID-19 or anything else this year, the holiday season might be an uphill battle. Here's advice on processing the pain.

This article was originally published November 2020. Since then, more than one million Americans have died of COVID.

For the families and close friends of the more than 257,000 Americans who’ve died of COVID-19 this year, getting through the holidays may be the biggest hurdle yet.

Melissa Wherry, an art instructor in New Jersey, admits she’s been dreading the holidays. Her grandpa died from the coronavirus on April 4. Because of social distancing guidelines, the family wasn’t able to have a proper funeral. Instead, they watched the burial over Zoom.

Wherry lost her father two days after Christmas three years ago, so the holidays were already an emotionally loaded time. As the holiday season inches closer, she’s been experiencing a lot of anticipatory anxiety over how the holidays will play out this year; as with her grandpa’s funeral, her family won’t be able to gather together to celebrate or mourn, and Wherry said that’s a hard pill to swallow.

“I’m terrified about going into the holidays,” the art instructor explained. “My mother lives alone, and knowing I cannot give her a hug or comfort her during the first holiday season without my grandpa and the anniversary of my father’s death breaks my heart in more ways than I can express.”

As Wherry has experienced firsthand, when your grief is still so fresh, holiday cheer and the almost-relentless pressure to be positive, merry and bright can have a dulling effect on you.

But struggling and grieving through the holidays after losing someone to COVID-19 or anything else doesn’t make you a less-positive person, it just makes you human, said Amanda Darnley, a psychologist in Philadelphia.

“I think it’s important this year to acknowledge that processing through grief ‘well’ might actually look like ‘struggling,’” she told HuffPost. “The holidays may kick this up a notch because of the expectations of joy and happiness bumping up against the reality of our grief. This juxtaposition may be especially difficult if this is the first holiday season spent without your loved one.”

That’s been true for Annie Helmer. In late October, she lost her father to COVID-19. A month later, Helmer, a general manager in the food industry in Wisconsin, is still working through the early stages of grief. Given her busy workload, she’s hardly had a spare moment to reflect on her dad’s death.

“With my job right now, things are so hectic with all that’s going on in our communities that I haven’t really had the time to sit down and let the emotions go,” she said.

“I catch myself taking a couple minutes every so often to step aside and cry a bit before pulling myself together and getting back to work,” she added. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s all I unfortunately have time for right now.”

“I’ve probably cried more in the last 23 days than my entire life before that.”

- Annie Helmer, general manager in the food industry who lost her father to COVID-19

Helmer’s father loved having his adult children over for the holidays. Since his death, there’s been times when Helmer has had to stop herself from calling him to finalize their holiday plans this year or just to chat.

“I catch myself going to call him, and the moment I remember I can’t is the worst feeling,” she said. “I’ve probably cried more in the last 23 days than my entire life before that.”

She’s not just processing her grief going into the holidays, but her anger, too.

“Obviously, there’s this divide in our country over COVID and how to protect oneself from it,” she said. “All I can think is if people, including our government, had taken this seriously from the beginning, I’d maybe still have my dad.”

Even families who haven’t lost someone to COVID-19 are experiencing grief and anger at the events of 2020, said Hope Edelman, author of the recent book “The Aftergrief” and a certified life coach specializing in grief and loss.

“It’s going to be easy this holiday season to focus on all that’s missing and all that we’ve lost this past year: People, jobs, social gatherings, in-person classes, a broader sense of safety in the world,” she told HuffPost.

Given how destabilized the world feels right now, people should expect to feel a little emotionally wobbly at certain points during the holidays, she said.

“There’s no right or wrong way to get through this,” she said. “Grief is a very, very individual process. It’s going to look different for you than it does for your family members or friends. It’s important to give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel.”

That’s a lesson Helmer is learning in real time. She and her brother will have a small dinner on Christmas ― “I’m sure we’ll reminisce about past holidays with our dad” ― but they’re not putting too much pressure on themselves otherwise.

“I think you have to take your time and grieve in your own way,” she said. “There is no timeline or correct way to grieve. And there is no shame in asking for help or reaching out to people to talk to, either.”

There are other steps to take to help you navigate your grief, too. Below, Darnley, Edelman and other grief specialists share advice on handling your first holiday without a loved one.

“Grief is hard enough without also berating yourself for ‘not being over it yet,’” psychologist Amanda Darnley said.
martin-dm via Getty Images
“Grief is hard enough without also berating yourself for ‘not being over it yet,’” psychologist Amanda Darnley said.

Acknowledge the impact grief is having on your life.

After experiencing such a chaotic year and losing someone you love, it’s vital to acknowledge your feelings ― the good, the bad, the ugly and ugly-cry inducing. Do so without judging yourself for feeling any one of them.

“Grief is hard enough without also berating yourself for ‘not being over it yet,’” Darnley said. “Likewise, if you do feel some joy and excitement in the midst of your grief this season, don’t judge that either. Practice some self-compassion and validate your feelings. Remind yourself that there is no wrong way to feel.”

Look for ways to honor your late loved one.

Find holiday-specific ways to honor your late loved one this year: Maybe your father loved Honey Baked Ham, so this year, serve that rather than your usual turkey dinner. Maybe your grandma never went natural with her tree selection, preferring a bright pink artificial tree instead. In her memory, zhoosh up your home by putting up a fake mini pine tree ― a pink one, if you’re feeling bold.

These mini tributes during the holidays can help make your late relative a presence rather than an absence, Edelman said.

“In a year when familiar traditions may have to be canceled or postponed, or if a specific loved one is no longer here for the planning or execution, it’s a great idea to create a new, one-time ritual for the holidays,” she said. “If it’s a hit, consider replicating it again next year.”

When you’re feeling particularly stressed, zoom in and zoom out.

If there’s a moment that feels especially emotionally loaded or difficult, try to practice mindfulness by either zooming in or zooming out. What’s that, exactly?

“Zooming in looks like focusing your attention on ‘just this one thing, in just this one moment,’ like how the smell of your morning coffee is filling the room and how the full mug is warming your hands,” Darnley explained. “This gives you some reprieve from focusing on the loss.”

Zooming out, on the other hand, asks you to consider this one moment in relation to your life as a whole, or even “humanity as whole, or if we were to take it even further, the universe as a whole,” Darnley said.

“This doesn’t make the current situation any less challenging, but it might be helpful to remind yourself that life is bigger than any one moment,” the psychologist explained.

Ask yourself how your loved one would want you to carry on with your life.

Lean into all your feeling this season, but actively look for bright spots, too. That’s very likely what your late relative would have wanted for you, said Allen Klein, author of “Embracing Life After Loss: A Gentle Guide for Growing Through Grief.”

“Ask yourself how the deceased would want you to carry on with your life,” he said. “Most people I’ve talked to have said their loved one would want them to get on with their life, be joyous and enjoy life rather than carry their grief around forever.”

To get in that mindset, Klein said it helps to look around you and take note of all you still have to be grateful for: a safe place to live, your family, your children, your partner, your friends ― even if you have to see most of them over Zoom this year.

“To want what you don’t have is to waste what you do have,” he said.

Take special care of your body.

Be gentle with your body this season. As Edelman explained, grief takes a toll on our somatic systems, and when we’re physically drained, we can feel emotionally and mentally depleted, too.

“Devote extra time for rest, drink plenty of water, and go for brisk walks outside to keep your body moving,” she said. “Cardio is even better, if that’s possible. When we’re grieving, endorphins are our friends.”

Lastly, if you can swing it, give therapy a shot.

Given how triggering the holidays can be, remote therapy can help mitigate any negative feelings you’re experiencing, whether your grief is still new or has gone unaddressed for years.

“I know it can be difficult to start therapy when you’re in the midst of a busy season, or when you’re already feeling overwhelmed, but it can be so beneficial,” Darnley said. “It’s normal to ‘shop around’ for a therapist before you find one that you click with, so it’s a good time to get a head start on finding the right one before the big holidays arrive.”

Of course, therapy can be expensive, even if you have insurance. Here are a few suggestions for cutting costs, even just a little bit.

“After a loss, having an established therapeutic relationship as you enter a stressful season can really help keep your mental health,” Darnley said.

Do you have info to share with HuffPost reporters? Here’s how.

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