We’ve all heard the songs that play throughout the month of December: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” can be heard everywhere you go, from car stereos to department stores. It’s a time for family to come together and for joy to ripple through communities— for many, though, the holiday season can be one of the most emotionally complex and heavy times of the year. In this blog, we will explore the reasons why the holidays can be so difficult for those navigating life after loss. Most importantly, this blog will equip you to best support those around you that may be grieving this holiday season.
Before we identify the reasons why the holiday season could be so difficult, let’s first establish the framework for common coping mechanisms. Note that these coping mechanisms are not necessarily unhealthy, unless the person is leaning into one of these methods in excess. One may look one of three, or a combination of all three, ways during the holidays:
Type 1- Keeping busy. The grieving person may take on a work-focused, utilitarian role: for example, cleaning the kitchen in excess, running constant errands, or otherwise keeping busy enough to avoid participating in discussion around the house.
Type 2- Withdrawal. The second method is withdrawing, either directly or discreetly, from social activities: for example, taking ample smoke breaks outside, frequently napping, or sitting on the couch silently scrolling on their phone.
Type 3- Distraction. A grieving person may turn to social distraction to ease their feelings of sorrow: they may be the loudest or hardest-laughing person in the room, with their wine glass in hand and a smile nearly constantly plastered on their face.
In many, albeit not all, instances, a grieving person is more willing to talk about their loss than it may come across. Mentioning the deceased person’s name naturally in conversation, or giving the grieving person the opportunity to feel listened to, can be instrumental in many cases to helping keep the deceased loved one’s spirit alive.
The holiday season, where so much is typically "right," can make the effects felt of what might be "wrong" all the more polarizing. During this time of year, there is a strong emphasis on joy, celebration, and togetherness, which can highlight the absence of a loved one who has passed away. The holiday traditions and festivities that were once shared with that person can serve as painful reminders of their absence.
The holidays are often filled with family gatherings, parties, and social events, which can intensify feelings of loneliness, burn-out, and isolation for those who are grieving. Seeing others enjoying the company of their loved ones can amplify the sense of loss and longing for the person who is no longer there. It can be difficult to participate in cheerful activities when grief weighs heavily on the heart.
The pressure to be happy and festive during the holiday season can create additional stress for grieving individuals. They may feel expected to put on a brave face and engage in the usual holiday rituals, even when they don't feel emotionally ready or capable. This added pressure can exacerbate feelings of sadness and make it harder to process grief in a healthy way.
It is important to acknowledge and validate the struggles that grieving individuals face during the holiday season. There are an endless array of ways a grieving person can look or act during the holidays— providing them with careful and intentional support, understanding, and space to express their emotions can help ease some of the difficulty they may experience during this time. Encouraging self-care, offering a listening ear, and allowing them to grieve in their own way and at their own pace can make a significant difference in their ability to navigate through the holiday season while honoring their grief.