Everything was great…or so we thought. After several months of hard work to get our house ready to rent, we had successfully cleaned it, shown it to potential renters, chosen a good one and packed up our entire house and moved. With two small kids and a 125 pound dog, this felt like a miracle. We settled into the couch with a sigh of relief that night, feeling like our season of difficulty had come to an end.
And then the phone rang.
My husband’s mother was being admitted to the hospital for an unexplained fever that wouldn’t come down. We had no idea, that September evening, that she would only be with us for another 2 and a half weeks.
Our focus immediately shifted to caring for her and, when we finally found out she wasn’t going to make it, saying our final goodbyes. We stood in her hospice room, with our 5 year old and 1 year old, knowing this was most likely the last time they’d see their “Mamaw Joe” as they called her. We sang her favorite song to her, and I watched as my husband held his mother’s hand one more time. It felt so sudden and almost like a bad dream.
At the funeral, Michael’s dad didn’t seem quite himself, but we chalked it up to shock and grief. We had no idea that, 9 months later, we’d be saying our final goodbyes to him as well.
There’s never a good time to lose someone you love.
The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and peace. They’re meant to be celebrated with those you love. But when you’ve lost someone you love, in the midst of the holiday parties and Christmas music, delicious cookies, and sparkling lights, there’s an underlying current of grief that flows just beneath the surface.
Even with a smile on our faces, we can feel completely alone and deeply empty. Whether you’ve recently gone through loss or it’s been years, many of us experience a fresh wave of grief during the holidays. Grief can come from so many losses, not just death. You may be grieving due to divorce or a broken relationship. You may be grieving due to miscarriage or infertility, feeling the ache to hold a baby in your arms. We even grieve in times of transition, like the loss of a job or a home we loved or from moving across the country.
Whatever the cause of your grief, if you find yourself struggling this holiday season, here are a few things to help you through. Please know, you are not alone.
1. Recognize Your Grief
We usually associate grief with sadness. But in reality, grief can manifest in all different ways. It’s important to recognize how grief may be presenting itself in your life so that you can address it. Grief looks different for different people. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- Sadness, depression
- Anger (persistent frustration or huge outbursts)
- Anxiety or Fear
- Guilt, Shame or Regret
- Stomach upset
- Aches & Pains
- Lowered immune system
*If you are experiencing physical symptoms, please speak with a physician and be sure to mention your grief.
- Not eating enough
- Lack of Motivation
- Fear of being alone
- Not wanting to be with people
2. Give Yourself Permission to Grieve
Unlike many countries around the world, American culture doesn’t really make space for grief. Sure, we have a funeral and you might get a few days off from work, but then there’s an expectation that we move on and get over it. This is not only unrealistic but unhealthy.
What happens as a result is that we end up stuffing our emotions and moving on too quickly, rather than taking time to process and truly experience the emotions surrounding our loss. Inevitably, the unhealed hurt and grief will surface at a later time and usually in a much more explosive or detrimental way.
One of the best things you can do is to give yourself permission to grieve. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to not feel like yourself. You are allowed to let go of some of the holiday traditions and expectations this year.
Just as important, you are allowed to experience happiness. If you find yourself smiling at a familiar song or laughing at a funny movie, it’s okay. You are not being disloyal to the memory of the person you lost. It’s not cheapening the grief. You are human. As complex beings, we can feel more than one emotion at the same time. You can laugh in the midst of sadness. Let yourself experience more than one emotion simultaneously.
3. Find Some Healthy Outlets for Your Grief
The more we stuff our grief, the more it builds inside and the more likely we are to explode. It’s so important to find some tangible ways to express and process your grief in your daily life, especially during the holidays.
People grieve differently. Your grief journey may not look like your friend’s or your spouse’s, and that’s okay. Here are a few things to try:
Talk to Someone
Whether it’s a friend, a family member, a counselor or a grief group, being able to verbally process your loss and how it’s impacting you can be one of the most powerful things you do. Even if this isn’t something you usually do, it can greatly reduce feelings of loneliness and help your grief journey to feel a little less painful.
Write It Out
Try your hand at journaling. You don’t have to be a great writer for this to be a helpful experience. Start by writing the answers to one of these and see where it goes:
- What I miss most about _[person’s name]__ is…
- One of my favorite memories of __________ is…
- If _________ were here with me right now, I would tell him/her…
- If we were celebrating Christmas together, I would love to…
- Something I learned from _______ is…
- I will always treasure the time we…
Get Some Exercise
As difficult as it may be to motivate yourself to get moving when you’re feeling down, it’s one of the best things you can do to feel better. Exercise releases natural endorphins that can help you feel happier and more energetic, even on your hardest day. Step out into the fresh air and take a brisk walk. Join an exercise class at a local gym. Play basketball or racquetball with a friend. Find a free exercise class on YouTube and get your blood moving. Make it a priority to move every day.
4. Respect Your Own Needs
When you’re grieving, even the littlest things can feel overwhelming at times. Going to the store for a few groceries, cooking dinner, and keeping the house clean can feel like impossible tasks, let alone Christmas shopping at the mall during busy hours or braving the annual office Christmas party.
It’s so important to recognize your needs and not ignore them. Instead of just powering through, take a minute to ask yourself…”What do I need right now?” Maybe you need to text a friend for support. Sometimes you need to cancel your plans and stay home. Maybe you need to pay a few extra dollars for grocery delivery this time, or get takeout instead of making dinner. Or maybe you need to get out of the house and be around people. The important thing is listening to your needs and responding.
Don’t worry about keeping every tradition or doing all the things you’d normally do during the holidays. If continuing certain traditions is what you need, go for it. If not, go ahead and do something different this year. You can always revisit it next year and see what you’re up for.
5. Honor the Person’s Memory
One of the interesting dynamics of grief is that, even though we deeply feel the loss of our loved one, it can feel as though they have disappeared from the memory or awareness of everyone else around us. It’s like life is speeding ahead of us, other people have moved on and here we are, stuck in time, afraid to move forward because we may lose the closeness of the memory of the person we loved.
Part of a healthy grief journey can involve honoring the memory of your lost loved one. This helps us process the loss as well as remember their influence in our lives and on the world around us in a meaningful way.
It doesn’t have to be formal or fancy.
Check out these simple ways to honor your loved one this holiday season:
- Say their name out loud – As simple as this sounds, it’s actually powerful. Bring up their name in conversation. Say it when you’re alone. It doesn’t matter how, just say it.
- Continue a Tradition – This year, our family made Chex mix in honor of my husband’s mom. It’s something she did every year around Christmas time and we always enjoyed eating it. So we worked together to make a delicious batch and remember her fondly as we did. Is there something your loved one enjoyed doing? Do it in their honor, whether by yourself or with a friend.
- Write a letter to them – This doesn’t have to be weird. It’s really just another form of journaling your grief. Write a letter to the person you lost, letting them know how much you miss them, what you remember about them, what you wish you could have done with them, and how you will carry their memory with you. If your relationship with the person you lost was strained, broken or abusive, your letter can even express your grief over the relationship you wished you could have had with them, or how you choose to release and forgive them. This doesn’t mean saying that what they did to hurt you was okay, but simply that you are letting go of the hold it has had in your life.
- Make a Donation – Did they have a favorite organization or passion? Consider making a donation, no matter how big or small, in their honor.
- Attend a Ceremony or Gathering – There are a number of organizations that hold public gatherings to honor Veterans, miscarriage, or simply lost loved ones in general. Search online to find one in your area and join with others to honor the memory of your loved one in a meaningful way.
- Share Stories – Take some time to get together with family members or friends who also knew the person and share some favorite memories or stories. Laughing together is a beautiful way to honor someone’s memory and a great outlet for pent up grief.
- Give a Toast – At your holiday dinner or even on your own at home, raise your glass in memory of your loved one and say a few words about what they meant to you and how they are greatly missed.
- Look at Photos or Videos – One of the best ways to remember someone is to look back at photos and videos from years past. Let yourself remember the sound of their laugh, the way they smiled, the places you went or the things you did together.
6. Give Yourself Grace
There’s no “normal” amount of time it takes to move on from your grief. It’s different for everyone. Grief is not really a “condition” that we are cured of; it’s a journey that we walk. When you first lost someone you love, your grief can feel like a boulder on your back. It’s all you can think about. It’s all-encompassing. Your grief can feel too heavy for you to carry.
As time goes on, the boulder on your back becomes a rock, and eventually, it feels more like a pebble you carry in your pocket. It’s not gone, it’s just not all-consuming any more. There will be days when you forget it’s even there. Other days, you’ll reach your hand in your pocket and are instantly reminded. You pull the pebble out of your pocket and a wave of grief washes over you as you experience the depth of the loss all over again. Then back in your pocket it goes and you carry on.
You don’t have to rush the process. You don’t have to power through your grief. Give yourself grace and time to walk the journey in a way that brings healing and embraces the process, rather than stuffing your feelings or running from them.
7. Invite People In
In the midst of your grief, sometimes the most natural thing you will feel like doing is to withdraw from the people and world around you. Don’t. We need each other. The more you disconnect from others, the lonelier you will feel and the longer your grief journey can become. Even though it’s hard to reach out and be vulnerable, it’s worth it.
You don’t have to bare your soul to everyone who asks. Instead, find a few people who will listen and not necessarily give advice. It can be a family member, a friend, a pastor or a counselor. If you don’t have anyone you feel safe confiding in, find a grief group in your area and give that a try.
Ask for help when you need it. When people offer to help, say yes. Let them bring you a meal or watch your kids or buy you a cup of coffee. They will need help at some point too, and you can return the favor.
REALLY STRUGGLING? If you’re really struggling with deep grief or having thoughts about hurting yourself or ending your life, please get help immediately. If you’re in the United States, you can call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or Text: CONNECT to 741741 for support. You don’t have to be suicidal to reach out. They are ready to provide support and a listening ear to anyone in need.
Whatever your grief may look like this holiday season, I encourage you to give yourself permission to grieve. You don’t have to be perfect or do all the things. Just take it one day, one moment at a time.
Like this post? You may also enjoy…
- 7 Tips for a Happier, Less Stressful Holiday
- Rough Times? How to Rock Your Season
- 9 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Had a Miscarriage
P.S. Want to help others who may be grieving? Share this on Facebook, Pin it to Pinterest, or email it to a friend. Thanks!
P.P.S. Be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more simple strategies for a happy family!