Mental Challenges

Preparing for Grief During the Holidays in Advance Can Make It Easier to Deal With During

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Photo: Getty Images/Jamie Grill
After 19 years of managing my grief during the holiday season, has taught me that prepping for the tough emotions and physical symptoms of grief that may come up around the loss of loved ones should start well in advance. That's because the heaviest grief days are best prepared for when the feelings surround them are not that heavy yet.

As a first step, it’s important to realize that a lot of the pressure that comes with the holiday season is due to society’s perceptions of what this time of year should be like. “Generally speaking, holidays are portrayed in culture or through media as joyous celebrations of traditions with loved ones,” explains Sabrina Saucier, LCSW, and a therapist at Alma. “Therefore, individuals dealing with grief may internally struggle between how they actually feel versus what they are ‘supposed’ to feel like.”

That tension is difficult (read: near impossible) to shake off, so instead of trying to, if you have the bandwidth now, you can give yourself an upper hand by using that energy to preparing for grief during the holidays. Let this be a season where you need to think on your feet less and can focus on taking care of yourself more.

Take time to think about plans you can break

One of my go-to strategies for hard grief days is making plans that I know I can break if need be with people I know will understand. I started doing this at first during death anniversaries, but found it to be as helpful for holidays, too. The key requirements for this strategy are honesty (both with yourself and others) and a commitment to give room to whatever your feelings are on a given day.

Developing a deeper level of self-awareness can make this easier. “It can be helpful to understand that you may have different limitations around the holidays this year,” notes Saucier. "Setting boundaries and realistic expectations can help you manage or steer clear of situations that you may not be ready for.”

Find alternatives to the traditions that no longer resonate

If certain traditions just won't feel the same without the presences of a loved one who's passed, you may find relief from your grief by introducing a new form of celebration instead. That's what Kayla Nedza, author of Things I Could Never Thank You For ($17) and host of the Wellness Glow Up podcast, and her family did after her mom died in 2014.  “We shifted our holiday meals to sit at our kitchen table with four chairs versus our dining room table with six chairs, which left a very vacant spot open for us to continue to be reminded that our Mom wasn't there,” she says. “It's those small things that pop up that I needed to navigate alongside my family to ensure that we were creating a new way to do the holidays with our new family structure, rather than doing something out of habit that didn't work for us.”

Of course, asking your family and friends to alter time-honored holiday plans can be tricky. But something that can make those conversations go a little smoother is having a few phrases on hand that'll help you communicate your needs effectively. Saucier offered some templates you can personalize to fit your own boundaries:

  • “I really appreciate your invite, but I don’t feel ready to participate this year”.
  • “ I know I usually (do/bring/host) ___, but instead I am going to ___ this year”
  • “I would appreciate it if we can change the subject”
  • “Excuse me, I am going to step outside for a few minutes”
  • “I really miss __ and I’d love to honor them this year by ___”
  • “I really appreciate our traditions, but I thought we could do things a little differently this year”

Preparing ahead of time for the holiday season doesn’t guarantee that your grief won’t manifest or that it’ll necessarily be less heavy this year. But taking time now to consider how you'd like to hold space for yourself can make the hard more manageable.

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