Christmas. It’s the season of joy, of giving, of making memories with our friends and family. Our cities, towns, offices, and homes are decorated with twinkling lights, and cheerful holiday music is playing everywhere we go.
Our friends, colleagues, and neighbors keep echoing sentiments like “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Holidays!”
Everyone seems so happy, and they expect you to be happy, too. But if you are grieving or going through a difficult time during the Christmas season, this constant bombardment of holiday cheer can be overwhelming, and seem like a cold slap in the face.
The Pain of Loss is Greater During the Holidays
The loss of a loved one is difficult at any time of year, but the holiday season punctuates this loss even more. Christmas is a time when we emphasize being with our friends and family, making memories to look back on in years to come. For this reason, the absence of a loved one at this time of year can feel even more significant.
Whether you’ve lost a friend, a parent, a child, or a spouse, engaging in your usual holiday traditions without them often feels wrong, even disrespectful, to that person. It can be painful to watch people around you join in the holiday cheer as if nothing were different when there is a gaping hole in your world.
How to Help a Grieving Loved One During the Holidays
Maybe you’re not the one who is going through a loss, but you know someone who is in this situation. If this is you, there are some important things to know in order to best help this person through the holiday season.
- Understand that even happy events are tinged with sadness. For a grieving person, every activity, even the fun, and exciting ones feel incomplete. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invite your grieving friend to join in activities, but do not expect that they will wholeheartedly join the merriment .
- Support how they decide to spend the holidays. Your friend may decide to continue with their usual holiday traditions, they may decide to forego the season altogether, or they may decide to hop on a plan to get away from it all. Whatever their decision is, even if it impacts you in some way, be supportive. Everyone handles grief differently, and you need to let your loved one handle it in their own way .
- Social situations are hard, so invite but don’t push. Crowds are difficult when you are grieving. Small talk can be unbearable. A room full of couples after your spouse has died, or a party full of children after the loss of your own child is just another reminder of what you’ve lost .
If someone you know is going through this, it is important to invite them to the party, activity or event, just don’t push them to come if they’re not feeling up to it. In the same vein, don’t be surprised or upset if they cancel at the last minute. Let them know that you understand and be flexible.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about their lost loved ones. For many, there is a fear around the holidays that their deceased loved one will be forgotten. Although it may feel awkward at first, do not be afraid to talk about this person, and say his or her name. Reminiscing about past memories will be a comfort to your grieving friend. Consider asking him or her how they would like their loved one to be remembered, or if they want to commemorate them in a certain way .
- Offer practical support. Simply saying “let me know if there is anything I can do for you” may be thoughtful, but it’s not entirely helpful. Grieving people often feel like they are a burden on everyone else during the holidays and will be hesitant to ask for help. Take initiative, and offer to do things like help with holiday shopping, take their kids to a Christmas activity if they’re not feeling up to it, help with cleaning or cooking a holiday meal. They may decline your offer, but offering help lets them know you are thinking about them during such a difficult time .
- Tears are OK. Remember tears are not a problem to be solved – they are a normal way we express sadness, and often come out when we are least prepared for it. Let the grieving person know that they do not have to be embarrassed by their tears, and offer comfort .
Grief doesn’t impact only the first holiday season. It is unfair to expect that someone has gotten over their grief entirely by the time the next holiday season rolls around. You never fully get over the loss of a loved one, and the holiday season may always be tinged with sadness for that person from now on. Gradually, the holidays will get easier, but don’t expect someone to have fully moved on, even two or three years later .
How to Cope With the Holidays if You are Grieving
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one this Christmas, here is some advice to help you through the holiday season:
- Set boundaries. Allow yourself to decline an invitation if you are not feeling up to attending a holiday event. Even if you initially accepted, remember that it is ok to cancel, even last minute. Other people may try to convince you to participate, but your only obligation is to yourself, and you know what you can and cannot handle .
- Have a plan B. On the same note, if you originally had plans to attend a holiday party or dinner, but realize at the last minute that it just doesn’t feel right, have a backup plan. Maybe that means watching a Christmas movie that your loved one enjoyed, or looking through photographs and reminiscing about the happy times you spent together. Even simply knowing you have a plan B in place can be enough to put your mind at ease .
- Plan ahead. If you do decide to attend a holiday event, go in with an escape plan. Perhaps you drive over with a trusted friend who will take you home whenever you feel you’ve had enough. This way, you don’t feel trapped if it becomes overwhelming .
- Honor your loved one. This may be difficult, but honoring them in some way can make you feel close to them at Christmas.
“Do something to remember the person you have lost, so you can give their spirit energy and feel their closeness,” suggests Lianna Champ, who has more than 40 years’ experience in grief counseling and funeral care, and is the author of the practical guide, How to Grieve Like a Champ. “Why not use the Christmas tree to hang a special memento, photo or message, light a candle in their memory, pour a glass of their favorite tipple or cook their favorite dish?” 
- Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. Holidays can be a roller coaster of emotions. You could find yourself going from laughing to crying in the same breath- and that’s ok. Don’t judge yourself for feeling any emotion, whether that’s happiness or sadness .
- Do something nice for others. Maybe you’re not feeling up to joining in the merriment this year, so why not extend a hand to others who may be suffering? There are many charitable organizations that are looking for volunteers for food or clothing drives, or organizing a Christmas dinner for the homeless. Helping others has a unique way of making you feel better, too .
- Ask for help. Remember you don’t have to do this alone. Talk to your close friends and family about your grief. If that is not enough, reach out to a support group, whether in-person or online or contact a professional to help you deal with your grief in a healthy way .
The Christmas season is supposed to be full of joy and laughter, but if someone you know is struggling this year, try your best to be understanding and supportive. If you are the one grieving, be kind to yourself- Christmas will come and go, and the important thing is that you are working through your grief in a way that feels right to you.
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