Updated December 16, 2020
This year has been an especially difficult one. With Covid-19 taking upward of 250,000 lives and still counting, it’s possible that one of your loved ones was included in that number. Or maybe you lost a beloved family member or dear friend due to gun violence or a long fought battle with cancer.
Regardless of how your person died, the firsts are always the hardest: the first holidays, birthday, anniversaries, and milestones without them. But the seconds, thirds, and fourths are hard too. The holidays are supposed to be about hope and joy, but these holly jolly sentiments may be the opposite of what you’re feeling right now. I want you to know that’s okay.
In fact, if you feel like turning the lights off and curling up in a ball for a good cry or watching all of their favorite movies — even though none of them are Christmas movies — that’s okay too. So, how do you get through the holidays without acting like a Grinch? How do you make the traditions you had with your loved one still feel important and include them in some meaningful way?
Why Holidays Can Be Triggering
My least favorite thing about the holiday season? Virtually every movie, TV show, commercial, and social media post paints a picture of the holidays as a glorious time of family togetherness, and there is supposed to be a magical feeling in the air throughout the season. In 2020, this picture of togetherness, when even hugging your loved ones is risky, is going to feel like a world away. Your grief on top of the already overwhelmingly surreal year may feel overwhelming.
The pressure to have some semblance of normalcy is expected, both during a pandemic and when you’re attempting to hold the memory of your loved one close. And, when the holidays don’t end up feeling as magical as societal expectations indicate they should, you might end up feeling depressed, anxious, or just deeply disappointed.
Throw holiday expectations out the window
Holidays are also jam-packed with traditions and memories, from childhood all the way up to the present day. You may feel concerned about what forgotten memories the holidays might unearth and how you will cope with these memories.
All of your feelings, worries, and fears about what the holiday season might look like now are valid and absolutely understandable. Still, as much as we’d like to, hibernating during the holidays each year may become a bit impractical.
If you’re experiencing your first holiday without a loved one, you may be wondering how you’ll even manage to put up your tree, light your menorah, or however you celebrate (or don’t) without sobbing uncontrollably. Or, you may be trying to figure out how to incorporate memories of your lost loved one and their traditions into an already dizzying year.
5 Ways to Get Through the Holidays
Here are some tips to put one foot in front of the other this year. But, most importantly, only use the tips you need to get through the holidays and honor your loved one. Surviving grief is already a Herculean effort, there’s no need to be a hero, just do what feels best for you.
Here are some ideas for how to cope this holiday season.
1. Don’t force yourself to celebrate
Let’s start with a “don’t” since you’re already doing a lot lately. For some of us, during the pandemic and through the holidays, the pace of life slows. Businesses are closed and many people have time off of work and school. You don’t necessarily have to use the holidays to celebrate if that doesn’t feel right to you.
You can use this time to enjoy some peace and quiet, maybe spend some time going for a hike or simply calling a friend that you’ve meant to reach out to. The holidays are actually a good time to process your grief. Taking a mental health day here and there, or a few days for bereavement, is not enough. Take this time to look through photo albums or simply sit in the closet with your loved one’s clothes or other treasured possessions. Even try to remember their scent if that feels like something you’ve been meaning to do.
2. Give into the range of emotions
Grief is like the least fun roller coaster you’ve ever been on: there are high ups and low downs. During the holidays, you might find that your feelings of grief are magnified. You might overhear a phrase that your loved one often said and smile brightly, or contrarily you might hear that same phrase two days later and fall apart. Allow yourself to feel these feelings, however they appear. You are allowed to feel more than one thing at a time, as all of us often do. Joy, sadness, wistfulness, longing, regret, anger, happiness, and pain are all part of the roller coaster of grieving.
3. Surround yourself with your people
With the pandemic, the holidays are going to be different this year for everyone. This year, more than ever, you should get to decide who you want to be with. If there is someone who you normally celebrate holidays with, who tends to bring you down or is generally unsupportive, it’s okay to cancel those plans or set boundaries. Choose the people in your life who really get you, will love you unconditionally, and will allow you to share the grief that you’re experiencing.
You can also schedule a Zoom call sometime around the holidays with the people who knew your loved one best and swap memories about them. Your person had other people who love and miss them too, and talking about the person with those who knew them best can be healing and bring back fond memories. Maybe this can even be a new tradition!
4. Create space for new traditions
One of the most difficult things about holidays after a hardship or loss is that the traditions that once marked the holidays may not be possible or even desirable anymore. But, like the Zoom call with those who knew your loved one best, there’s room for new traditions too. Maybe next year you can meet up at someone’s home, have everyone light a candle, and go around in a circle sharing a memory. Or maybe this year you have a socially distanced meet up at the person’s grave and share memories there.
5. Make your mental health a priority
Your mental health matters, and when you’re feeling vulnerable, you need to take extra steps to keep your mental health in check. That might mean saying “no” to Zoom fatigue and saying “yes” to meditating, journaling, and keeping in touch with a therapist.
For Now and For the Future
Take heart in the fact that you are not alone. While it may feel like you are the only one in pain this holiday season, there are so many who are also struggling now — especially with Covid-19 still raging on. Connecting with people who have been there before, or are even there now, can be incredibly healing as you wade through the holiday seasons, and begin to move forward. This may be a good time to sign up for a grief group or to connect with a therapist. Maybe you make a list of things that you and your loved one wanted to do, and tack it on your fridge for next year when the pandemic is over so you have something to look forward to planning.
Above all, remember that grief is experienced and felt differently by everyone. Never apologize or feel like you need to give an explanation for excusing yourself or saying “no” to an event that you don’t want to or aren’t ready to attend. This holiday season is the time to figure out what’s right for you or what’s not a good fit. The way to get help is to ask for it. The way through grief is through it. For people who are grieving, ’tis the season for taking: take time for silence and stillness, take deep breaths, and take one step at a time.
If you’re struggling with grief this holiday, consider reaching out to a licensed Talkspace therapist — a convenient, affordable first step.