The holiday season is in full swing! This time of year can bring so much cheer as we embrace loved ones and celebrate in our own unique ways. Whether it’s watching holiday movies, giving gifts, spending quality time with loved ones, or creating delicious food, this season can be oh-so-delightful. However, holiday traditions can bring up other emotions too — ones that aren’t so comforting. Grieving during the holidays can full of emotions.

If you’ve lost a loved one, you know the holidays can uncover numerous feelings of grief, ranging from utter sadness to anger, stress, resentment, frustration, regret, and even fatigue. These tough emotions may be experienced in many different combinations and in any order, often adding confusion to the mix and ultimately making things worse. It can be so challenging and frustrating to carry the weight of grief while also being pressured to enjoy holiday rituals. I want to take a moment to talk about this vulnerable time, to bring an understanding to these intense emotions.

Understanding and Identifying Triggers as They Come

Before learning how to help our grief, we must first identify the things that set us off. The experiences we have right before being flooded with emotion could be considered “triggers” of grief. When a trigger occurs, it can quickly send us into a different emotional place, bringing back memories of our loved ones who have passed. Triggers often involve the senses – such as sights, smells, sounds, touches, and even tastes — and are very specific to each individual. Different situations trigger different people. 

Some examples of may include:

  • Social media posts of people gathering; movie scenes; old pictures; snow; decorations; and certain places, like stores or particular rooms
  • Smells- foods being cooked; candles; spices, like cinnamon; smoke from fireplaces
  • Sounds- certain songs; sleigh bells; hearing groups of people laughing together
  • Touches- feeling ingredients while cooking; wrapping gifts; lighting candles; feeling the snow or cold temperatures
  • Tastes- cookies and desserts; special foods served on holidays; and specific flavors, like peppermint or ginger

Common Experiences of Grief During Holidays  

Sometimes, we could be contently moving about our day when, all of the sudden, a trigger comes up and inundates us with a strong wave of emotion. It can be hard to grapple with these intense feelings and understand why they are happening. When this occurs, try leaning into, rather than running away from it, to uncover its meaning. 

Here are some common feelings that may happen when triggered:

  • Feeling lonely. It is normal to feel isolated while missing a late loved one’s company during the holidays.
  • Feeling inadequate. Oftentimes, we learn certain traditions and holiday-related skills from our loved ones. Examples could be baking particular recipes or shopping for gifts. A former feeling of appreciation for a late loved one’s help may now feel like it’s impossible to measure up to expectations without them.  
  • Lack of motivation. You may feel lethargic or indifferent towards the idea of celebrating if it means doing so without your loved one.
  • Feeling regretful. Wishing you could go back to change something about a memory with your late loved one.
  • Feeling sad about a loved one missing out. This can happen during events that used to be enjoyed with this person. 

What do I do?

This is the big question. Many people want these intense feelings to go away and to experience the holidays as they did before their loss. To make sense of this, I like to think of grief as a beautiful vase that means a lot to me. If the vase broke, I would want to save it by picking up the pieces and putting it back together. It would be pretty time-consuming to figure out which piece goes where and what glue would be best to use. I can imagine I would get frustrated and want to give up. But if I remembered how beautiful it once was, I’d have more patience and motivation to keep working on it.

Grief can feel similar. The key is not to sweep away the feelings of grief so you don’t have to experience them anymore. Instead, use your many coping skills to heal the grief at a pace that you need. There is no time limit to put things back together, and things will never look exactly the same as they once did. The cracks and imperfections create a rich uniqueness, just like your love for the ones who have passed. 

Here are some things that can be helpful during this process:

  • Recognize your feelings, and don’t bottle them up. Make time and space for them, even if it hurts. 
  • Instead of avoiding intense emotions, appreciate them! Let them tell the story they need to tell. 
  • Allow others in. It is okay to trust others and open up about what you are feeling. They don’t need to have solutions; a listening ear can do wonders. 
  • Also, set boundaries with others. If you need space to grieve or more time to get something done for someone, that is okay.
  • Take advantage of technology. There are a lot of creative ways to keep in touch with supportive people. Texting, calling, video chatting, and virtual games are all great ways to connect during a time of social distancing. 
  • Don’t avoid talking about the lost loved one. Tell stories and share pictures. Honor the time you had with them by reliving some of the best memories. 
  • Create new traditions as a tribute to loved ones. Make it a ritual to bake their favorite cookies or pie. Put up decorations and pictures that remind you of them. Go to their favorite place to spend the holidays and talk about a funny memory.  
  • Express your feelings through writing. Write in a journal and let out your honest feelings. Write a letter to the lost loved one and give them a recap of the past year. Tell them what you want to say to them now.
  • Express your feelings through art or hobbies. 
  • Make sure to get the sleep you need. If that is hard to do, even just resting your eyes can make a difference.
  • Talk to a professional. Therapists are a great resource to talk about grief. 

Lastly, you deserve self-compassion. Losing someone is hard, to say the least, and can take a long time to fully process. How you feel right now is valid, and there is a reason for your reactions. Be gentle and kind towards yourself. The more you see the vase, the more you’ll appreciate its new beauty. 

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.