Grief is tough to deal with any time of the year, but it is especially challenging during the holidays.
Why does grief seem to turn up the volume during the holiday season? I think there are at least three reasons why grief is more pronounced in the U.S. fromThanksgiving through Christmas.
First, the nostalgia surrounding the holidays and other special occasions prompts us to recall memories more readily.
Second, these events tend to frame the absence of our loved ones. For example, a chair that was occupied at the family table may be vacant this year.
And third, we tend to be more emotive during the holidays. Our sensory capacity is thrust into high gear.
Since grief is more profound during the holiday season, how do we deal with it?
One approach is to repress the grief under the guise of being strong. However, repressed grief becomes toxic and can lead to depression or illness. It’s better to confront grief head on.
Here are 10 helpful ways to navigate holiday grief:
- Proactively prepare for holiday grief. Don’t avoid it or deny it. Engage it. The best therapy for grief is to grieve.
- Do a soft reset on your holiday traditions. Determine which traditions to keep and which to eliminate. And start at least one new tradition. Since grief has a way of reconfiguring life, relationships and family, embrace the new configuration by beginning at least one new tradition.
- Highlight a favorite event or experience of your loved one. Choose something that was a favorite food, game, song or activity of your departed loved one and find a way to highlight it during the holidays. For example, if they loved driving around to see Christmas lights, do it this year in memory of them. If they loved coconut cake, make one and have everyone try a bite.
- Be creative in “work arounds.” Let’s say that Grandpa always read the Christmas story after dinner from his recliner. It may be too emotional for the family to have someone else read the Christmas story from Grandpa’s recliner. Consider having one or more of the grandchildren read the Christmas story before dinner around the dinner table.
- Plan a strategic holiday memorial gift. If Grandma was in a mission group and supported the Christmas mission offering, plan for the family to each give a gift to the mission offering in her memory. If Grandpa served on the properties committee at church, consider a gift toward campus improvement in his memory. Plan the gift to correspond to one of the passions of your departed loved one.
- Tell lots of stories. For years, I’ve encouraged families to continue to treasure the memories and tell the stories. Stories are therapeutic, for sure. But they are also formational and nurturing. One reason genealogies are included in the Bible is because stories of our ancestors help shape our identities.
- Continue the conversation. Most of us tend to continue an internal dialogue with our departed loved ones after they are gone. Sometimes it involves a gut-wrenching confession such as, “Daddy, there are so many things I wish I had told you.” Much of the time it is something as simple as, “I sure do miss you.” And, of course, such a dialogue may include good humor such as, “The lights at the top of the tree have gone out again, and I suspect you may have had something to do with that.” It is important during the holidays to keep the conversation going, and maybe even rev it up a bit.
- Designate moments for quiet and solitude. Be careful not to withdraw into a cocoon of isolation. But likewise, be careful not to bury your grief in a flurry of holiday events and activities.
- Participate in holiday services at your church. Not everyone is ready to return to active participation in worship or a small group for the first week or two after a memorial service. Of course, things will be different when you return. But the longer you wait to re-engage, the tougher it will be to adjust to a new normal. Somehow, the music and message of Advent and Christmas invoke hope and courage. So, the holidays may be the best time to return to active participation.
- Write a letter to your departed loved one. In the letter, tell them what you are feeling during the holidays. Then read the letter aloud as though the departed friend or family member is in the room with you. We think and we speak with different sides of the brain. To reflect, write and then speak what you have written is healthier and more holistic than simply writing it down. It’s your choice whether to keep the letter confidential or to share it with other family members.
Healthy expressions of grief include finding the right balance of tears and laughter, of connecting and disconnecting, and of lamentation and celebration.
And remember, not every member of the family grieves in the same way or at the same pace. Allow space for family members to grieve in their own way.
There’s no doubt the weight of grief can be heavier during the holidays. But the holidays also present great opportunities for finding positive and proactive ways to deal with your grief.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Brookhaven, Georgia.