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Managing Grief Through the Holidays

The holiday season is officially upon us, bringing with it a variety of feelings, memories, and traditions associated with this time of year. This season can offer an abundance of cheer, create positive memories, and bring families together. It can also increase our stress and raise expectations of our own and others’ time and energy.

For grieving people, the holiday season can be a painful reminder of what has been lost. There is nothing like bringing the family together to remind us that someone is missing. Amidst the activity of the holidays, there may be a layer of pain that can unexpectedly rise to the surface.

Other feelings may complicate the grief experience as well. A grieving spouse may walk by a store and see a gift that is perfect for their loved one. A grieving child may struggle to re-create their mother’s “famous” recipe. Attempts to “carry on” old traditions after a loved one has died may add another helping of grief to an already full plate.

What can be done to cope with grief over the holidays?

The COPE acronym might be helpful in understanding the elements of good coping.

C: Compassion for self

O: Open communication

P: Planning

E: Engage in self-care

Compassion for self: Trust that—as with any other time of year—there is no right or wrong way to cope with grief around the holidays. It will be different for each person. The key is to be gentle and compassionate with yourself.

Open communication: Be open with others about your needs. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to invitations if you are not ready for them. When invited to events or parties, phrases such as, ‘I hope to come, but it is hard to predict what that day will be like for me,’ ‘Thank you for asking,’ or ‘I don’t think I’m ready yet, but please ask again’ might help people understand what you are feeling.

Planning: The holiday season can be very busy with many invitations to consider. Plan ahead for how to manage events as it might be hard to predict ahead of time how you will feel on any given day. It could help to have a backup plan in case you need to leave an event early or make a last-minute change in plans. Decide your limitations ahead of time.

Engage in self-care: Perhaps you can manage the natural chaos of the season with interludes of emotional and spiritual respite. Practice self-care by taking a quiet walk, listening to music, or relaxing in a warm bath. Another element of self-care may include reaching out to others for support when needed. This may be in the form of a trusted friend, a loved one, a spiritual leader, or a grief counselor.

Coping with grief over the holidays takes work. It is not easy, and there may be pain. But pain does not mean an absence of joy and hope. It is possible to feel a wide range of emotions. Remembering the COPE acronym can help manage the pain as it comes and make room for hope and joy during this difficult time.