A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Tips for coping with grief during the holidays

Woman drinking tea looking out window - Dealing with grief during the holidays

If you’re dealing with grief, set aside time to mourn and think about your loved one, but try not to isolate yourself.

For people dealing with grief, the holidays may not be filled with cheer. Seeing others celebrate sharpens the loneliness that comes after losing a loved one.

“Society’s expectation that you’re supposed to be in good spirits can lead those who are grieving to feel isolated and out of step with others,” said Joe Chojnacki, Ph.D., a Marshfield Clinic psychologist.

He offered these tips for coping with grief during the holidays.

6 positive ways to cope with grief

  1. Control how you spend the holiday. “Think ahead about what events you feel up to attending,” Chojnacki said. Let family and friends know what you feel comfortable with and how they can support you.
  2. Scale back. Don’t feel pressure to decorate, bake, send cards or host a holiday gathering if you’re not feeling up to it. If you need to shop, consider doing it online.
  3. Find comfort in old or new traditions. Some people find comfort in old traditions, but for others, they intensify feelings of loneliness. If old traditions don’t feel right, try something new, like a different meal or location.
  4. Honor your loved one. Donating time or money to their favorite charities, lighting a candle or saying a prayer are comforting ways to honor a loved one. Others prefer a more physical reminder, like placing Dad’s favorite hat in his spot at the holiday table.
  5. Reminisce. Share stories, look at family albums or watch old home videos to keep your loved one’s memory alive. Others may enjoy reminiscing and learning new things about their family member or friend.
  6. Take care of yourself. Eat well, shower and get enough sleep and physical activity. Taking care of yourself is an important part of staying healthy when you’re dealing with the emotional strain of grief.

Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms

Everyone grieves differently, but some coping mechanisms can be unproductive or dangerous.

  • Don’t bottle up your feelings. Even if you set aside time to mourn your loved one, you may be overcome by strong feelings when you hear certain songs or face other reminders. It’s a natural part of grieving and no reason to be embarrassed, Chojnacki said.
  • Don’t feel guilty about enjoying yourself. Experiencing a range of emotions is a normal part of grieving. Feeling joy doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about your loved one. “Enjoy the present moment. Being around family and friends can lead us to think of the things we have to be thankful for in life,” Chojnacki said.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Skipping stressful events is okay, but pulling away from everything and everyone isn’t recommended. Spending even a little time around others is good for coping with grief.
  • Don’t turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs often intensifies negative feelings rather than taking away the pain of loss.

Consider talking to a therapist if you find yourself experiencing any of these signs of depression:

  • Grief that lasts long past the holidays
  • Isolation
  • Feeling like you have no one to talk to
  • Trouble concentrating on work or doing daily activities
  • Drinking or using drugs to cope

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