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How To Navigate The Holiday Season During Times Of Loss & Grief

Jessica Timmons
mbg Contributor By Jessica Timmons
mbg Contributor
Jessica Timmons is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Healthline, Pregnancy & Newborn, Modern Parents Messy Kids, and more.
young black woman looking depressed and sad

For many of us, 2020 has been a year of loss—loss of routine, employment, structure, connections, and loved ones. It amounts to what Annette Childs, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author, describes as "collective grief." And with the holiday season well underway, that grief is making the most wonderful time of the year—a notoriously difficult season for those already struggling with depression and stress—feel particularly fraught.

To help, we asked Childs about the impact of grief during the holidays, plus her tips for navigating the holiday season when we're experiencing loss in so many ways.

Why grief is especially difficult during the holidays.

"Words like happy, merry, and joy go a long way in succinctly explaining why grief is such a hard load to bear during the holidays," says Childs. "The pressure to create, partake in, and loudly bang the drum of 'the perfect holiday season' is something that many of us feel every year, but when you're reeling from a loss and having a hard time just putting one foot in front of the other, facing the holidays can feel like more than you can bear."

That feeling of overwhelming loss is something many of us are experiencing, regardless of whether we've lost a loved one recently. The holidays are a time of tradition, of family, and of being together, and that's simply not something everyone can do safely at this point in the pandemic.

We're dealing with another tough reality, too. "Pre-COVID, most people had the ability to personify death as a faraway event. There was no need to view it through an up-close-and-personal lens," Childs notes. "The pandemic has changed that. Not only has COVID taken hundreds of thousands of lives, but the way it has taken these lives has also been unpredictable and haphazard in nature."

As infection rates and deaths accelerate, we're all feeling the effects. And for those who are dealing with a death, the pandemic has robbed us of so much more than our loved ones.

The sense of closure that comes from saying our goodbyes can play a big role in the grieving process. "Final moments, or lack thereof, inform the grieving process in so many different ways," Childs adds. Being with our loved ones at their time of death can bring enormous comfort, she says, and being denied that opportunity often creates a more complicated grieving process. Those complications are only emphasized during the holidays.

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Strategies for managing grief during the holidays.

So what can be done? How can we best navigate the holiday season and simultaneously manage our grief, no matter its cause? There's no easy answer, but making an effort to be gentle and patient with yourself is an important first step.

This has been an incredibly challenging year, and it's OK to feel overwhelmed and emotional, particularly if your experience includes the loss of a loved one. Remember, there's no timeline for grief, so don't mistake the five stages of grief as an agenda or a checklist, or even a linear path. Grief is messy and personal and very much an up-and-down experience. We tend to blindly feel our way through the grieving process, which is why understanding your grief archetype can be so powerful.

Little by little, time helps us heal. In the meantime, make a point of reaching out to those you love, get creative with how you choose to celebrate the holidays this year, and remember, a little self-care goes a long way.

Make an effort to reach out.

"Never underestimate the power of human-to-human connection," Childs says, "even if we cannot be in the same room." Social media and text messages have become common ways of reaching out, she says, but these forms of communication lack dimension.

Video calls like Zoom and FaceTime have their annoying faults, but there's something to be said for seeing the facial expressions, posture, and physical movement of someone you love—even with lags and glitches.

"Witnessing these expressions and movements activates mirror neurons, enhancing our capacity to understand others and increases our sense of empathy for the experiences they have," said Childs. And for the grieving in particular, something as simple as feeling witnessed in their grief can ease the sense of isolation that grief brings in general (and particularly during the pandemic and the holidays).

Relax your standards.

Yes, the holidays are all about traditions. But the season goes on whether you decorate or not. Give yourself the gift of letting go of the need to make everything perfect.

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Get creative.

Maybe the annual Christmas cookie decorating party isn't an option this year—or is it? A virtual version can give you the connection you need without putting anyone at risk. But again, don't put pressure on yourself to slap on a brave face. If even a virtual cookie decorating party feels like too much, opt for a warm bath instead.

Turn your energy inward.

Remind yourself that you're doing the best you can. Feeling overwhelmed, or emotional, or broken isn't a sign of weakness or an indication of your inability to cope. Reach out to a therapist if you need to talk, and make a point of taking care of yourself in whatever way feels right to you.

You might try spending a few minutes every day assessing your feelings and focusing on your breathing or jotting down your feelings in a journal. Maybe some easy stretches or spending time outdoors are forms of self-care for you. Find what works for you, and invest some energy into actively focusing on yourself.

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The takeaway.

"Silently enduring the 'joy of the holiday season' message that permeates society is always a hardship for the grieving," Childs says. "But this year, that burden has shifted, and if there is a silver lining at all to 2020, it would be that the pandemic is serving to increase global empathy. This is the year when everyone is looking back at the last holiday season with hindsight, marveling at all they did not know then that they've learned now, the hard way."

Remembering that we're all experiencing some form of grief this holiday season can help us feel less alone, and so can the understanding that there is no cure for grief. We do the best we can with what we have until we can do better. Right now, that's more than enough.

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