Mental Challenges

8 Tips for Coping With Loss and Grief During the Holidays, According to Experts

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Healing is not linear. It’s a reality Vivian Nuñez, a writer and founder of Too Damn Young, a digital community and resource for young adults navigating grief, unearthed after losing her mother at age 10 and later her grandmother. When her grandmother passed away, she was acting as the primary caretaker at age 21, and two months shy of college graduation.

“There were certain parts that felt very reminiscent of losing my mom," Nuñez says. "The first year being super hard, [around] the holidays. But there were also the nuances that were so new and different.” When it comes to loss, staff psychologist and professor at Columbia University Mariel Buquè, PhD, notes that the body and mind get creative. “People are going to represent grief and loss in very different ways that honor how their soul is feeling at the time,” she says. And that's part of why navigating grief during the holidays is so tricky and often unexpected.

Grief is multilayered: It can be felt in the body through insomnia or hypersomnia, issues with appetite, or other physical manifestations of loss. Grief can take a person through a range of emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt. It can align with the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—or completely break from these phases.

Navigating loss and grief during the holidays can be particularly challenging. While you’re expected to be in a festive mood, surrounded by loved ones and partaking in holiday traditions, you may feel triggered by the decorations or a song you associate with a memory. Here, Nuñez and Dr. Buqué offer ways to cope with loss and grief during the holidays.

1. Give yourself grace when identify feelings of grief during the holidays

Whether you lost a loved one this year or several years ago, you’re entitled to honor each holiday in a way that feels authentically you. One moment you may feel full of joy, the next nurturing a full-blown meltdown. “Give yourself access and understanding that the healing journey is not predictable and you have to stick it through in order to see the joy,” advises Dr. Buquè.

2. Celebrate in a way that feels true to you

“There is no good or bad way to celebrate the holidays,” says Nuñez. “There are just ways to celebrate the holidays and how you [choose to] honor them—whether it's by doing a big celebration or a quiet honoring of the day and the memories that you have—is valid. And as long as it's making you feel good, and as long as it's bringing you peace and some form of serenity and some form of happiness, then it is your holiday.”

3. Realize you’re not locked into cultural practices

Raised in a traditional Latinx household, Nuñez’s late grandmother was a huge cook. “It's been interesting to see how, over time, we've started swapping out and adding to her classics,” she shares, noting her grandmother's tradition of making sweet potatoes, pernil (slow-roasted pork), and yellow rice. "Not feeling resentful about the ways things are changing has been big.”

Last Christmas, her family celebrated by staying up on Christmas Eve to open presents at midnight. Instead of their traditional Sunday best (which was the typical tradition), they instead went with wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. “I don't know how much my grandmother would have approved, but I do think she was probably smiling down on us and our own attempts at unity.”

4. Plan ahead... but be flexible

Nuñez credits establishing new traditions and planning ahead with giving her a sense of control “during a season that feels a little bit uncontrollable.” While you never know how you’ll feel day of, a flexible plan gives you the option to choose what feels right.

5. Recite healing affirmations

Affirmations and mantras are clinically proven to enhance a person’s outlook and overall health. While mourning a loss, especially during the holidays, you can expect to feel a range of emotions. Dr. Buquè suggests reciting the following: “This person may have passed on, but their love still remains.”  There’s no one-size-fits-all model, so feel free to craft affirmations that speak to your needs.

6. Work through your grief with a healer

Healers take on many forms: therapists, mediums, and spiritualists, to name a few. A healer can identify your blind spots and provide insight into what will best help you navigate this season. "What happens when a person is in grief is that their capacity to process emotion is compromised by the loss," says Dr. Buquè. “A healer can act as a guide to help a person transition into a place where they are at peace, especially if the person is finding it challenging to heal on their own." Your healing journey honors your loved one who has passed, says Dr. Buquè. It’s a way for generational healing to take place, strengthening family dynamics of the past, present, and future.

7. Don't be afraid to be vocal about your needs with your community

“Community is so incredibly important,” shares Dr. Buquè. “Grief and loss can make you feel very much like you are alone. But community is a constant reminder that you have people with you.”

Nuñez admits she’s had to learn to communicate her needs to her community. “Sometimes I assumed that someone would know that I needed more love or affection during the holidays, and the reality is that they don't know because maybe their lived experience isn't the same, or they think the last thing I want is for them to remind me of this, so they're too afraid to say something,” she says. "Just me saying, ‘hey, by the way, I need this’ gave both of us more permission to then ask more questions, or hold more space in ways that are beneficial and healing.”

8. Share memories

Though memories are personal, it’s natural to want to share those of your late loved one with others. Let a friend or family member know you’re ready to revisit memories. “You just want to be able to have someone to turn to and say, like, ‘hey, can I just tell you a story about this person or this thing?” says Nuñez.

Originally published December 17, 2019; updated November 23, 2020.

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