Coping With Grief Over the Holidays

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on December 6, 2017

Have you lost someone you loved this year? A spouse, parent, sibling or friend who was deeply important to you?

If this will be your first holiday season without him or her, you are no doubt feeling grief.

You may even be dreading the holidays—and wondering how you’ll ever get through them.

There are steps you can take to help yourself grieve and recover.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that there will be pain. The holidays are an emotional time, when many of us feel we should have the perfect family and life.

“Emotionally, it will be difficult,” said Robert Trestman, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Carilion Clinic. “There will be feelings of distress, and we have to acknowledge that.”

“When we wake up, we’d normally be thinking of the pleasant things we would do with the person we love. Then we get the crashing realization that that’s not going to happen.”

It’s easier if you plan ahead for ways to cope during the holidays, he advised. “Reach out to your friends, family or church members in advance and plan activities that will keep you engaged and involved with others. Build alternatives to help you cope with your distress.”

These can include:

  • Creating new relationships
  • Strengthening older ones
  • Putting the focus not on yourself but on others
  • Volunteering in the community to feed the homeless or others who have less than you
  • Giving time to help a charity or members of your church, mosque, temple or synagogue

“This can also be a way of honoring the person you lost,” Dr. Trestman pointed out. “When you undertake an activity to consciously honor the person you loved, it adds a sense of respect and honor to your loss. It creates a different perception and makes you feel closely connected to their memory in a new, positive way.”

Typically the first year is the most difficult as we grieve the loss of a loved one. “Each subsequent year tends to be easier, but there will always be a sense of loss,” Dr. Trestman said.

Grief can also sometimes spiral out of control. “If your pain is prolonged, perhaps you need therapy or medication—or both,” Dr. Trestman noted. “It’s normal to feel profound grief for a couple of weeks, but it’s important to know that we start to recover over the weeks and months.”

How can you distinguish between holiday blues and a serious depression?  Signs that you may need help are:

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Having no energy
  • Not being able to concentrate or participate in normal activities
  • Not being able to sleep
  • Losing more than 10 percent of your body weight
  • Having thoughts of suicide

If you know someone who has lost a loved one, offer to spend time with them over the holidays so they are not alone. Most of our pain becomes worse when we are by ourselves.

Share stories and memories of the person who died, since it’s important to allow people to experience their grief. Also offer to cook for them or do other things for them. Invite them out, or just offer companionship. 

All of this will let them know that they haven’t lost everyone.

“The holidays are a difficult time because we invest so much emotionally in them,” Dr. Trestman said. “The post-holiday period can also be difficult, as people go back to their lives and you’re alone.”

“That’s why it’s so important to plan activities that will help you stay engaged.”

It can also help to know that the pain of loss will co-exist with the strong feelings of love that remain, and your indelible memories of the person you miss. They can more than compensate for the grief you are now feeling.

Learn how to help children manage grief in a healthy way.