Dealing with grief during the holidays: 4 ways to cope when everyone else seems happy

Mental Health

by Alan Wright, M.Div.

Dec 14, 2022

The holiday season can be overwhelming. The bright lights, the parties (and, oh yes, the expectations) can make anyone feel blue. One of the biggest and possibly most soul-crushing holiday expectations is to be, happy—joyous even.

I’ve experienced this personally because December, especially, holds as much loss for me as it does joy. It’s the month my father entered an ICU where he would later pass away. It’s the month of his birthday, too. It’s a month that still retains some grief, especially for my mother.

Even if you haven’t experienced a major loss, you still may find yourself down during the holidays.
It’s most important to acknowledge that people handle grief differently. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well-known grief counselor, author and speaker, encourages you to accept your unique thoughts and feelings during the holiday season. Find ways to mourn that work for you.
I can remember one difficult December when I went to a fully decorated, jam-packed mall full of credit-happy, holiday-headgear-wearing shoppers . . . twice . . . because I needed to be around people. I didn’t purchase one item. Others experiencing grief may very well choose to be alone.

Either way, if your mood isn’t matching the merry tone of this holiday season, there are some practical steps you can take to have a less tumultuous holiday experience.

1. Set expectations

Tell friends, family and co-workers that you’re just not feeling it this year. Perhaps you tell the boss that you’re not attending the staff Christmas party. The fewer the expectations, the less the unneeded stress you’ll experience.

2. Pick and choose

Choose which parts of the season in which you might actually like to participate. Perhaps foregoing the commercial facet of the holidays and concentrating on the peace, hope and love aspect will help reframe this season for you. Helping others—being altruistic—might give you a new perspective.

3. Acknowledge the grief

It’s an unhelpful myth that you have enough power to ruin another’s holiday joy by way of your sadness, and the result of not acknowledging your sorrow is only deeper grief.

4. Embrace new traditions

Remember, traditions should only continue if they bring you joy. Prolonging traditions for tradition’s sake can cause more grief. It may be helpful to create a new tradition that helps you leave the past behind and begin moving on to something new and more life-giving.

Don’t be afraid to accept help

Whether you are deep in your grief or your pain is fresh, there is help available for you. If you find your grief too heavy or perhaps you’re having trouble sleeping or staying on task, give yourself the gift of good therapy. I’ve done it and I’ve encouraged therapy for those I love the most.

You may already feel like you’re drudging through these cloudy December days, but I encourage you to accept help when it arrives. There should be no guilt in feeling joy, even if it’s for a moment. Be surprised by love and joy, and if you’re fortunate enough to experience it this season, accept it as a gift.

About the Author

Alan Wright is a chaplain at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center on the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas hospital campus.

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