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Grief Triggers During the Holidays

Find strength in moments of vulnerability

If you’ve experienced the death of a loved one—whether recently or years ago—the holidays can be a painful reminder of all that’s been lost. Things that once brought comfort and joy, like family traditions and festive gatherings, can now cause grief triggers that pull you back into the pain of your loss.

While there is no fast-forward button to skip this season, there are strategies you can take to make the holidays more bearable. Read on to learn more about grief triggers and how you can find strength in these moments of vulnerability, as well as how to find a holiday-specific grief support group near you or online.

Why the holidays cause grief triggers

Grief triggers are sudden, immediate, and overwhelming. They can be as subtle as the smell of cinnamon or as obvious as your loved one’s favorite holiday song playing on the radio. But no matter what form it takes, a grief trigger can feel like an emotional tidal wave that hits you when you least expect it, pulling you back into memories of your loved one and causing pain in the process.

With the focus on family, friends, gatherings, and traditions, holidays are full of grief triggers. And attempting to navigate the season is like trying to walk through an emotional minefield:

“The first time I heard that Christmas song after she died, I was ambushed. It was so painful.”
“The first Christmas after my husband passed, there was no mention of my husband’s name at our family reunion. On the inside I was broken.”
“We can’t bear the thought of waking up on Christmas Day and not having our son there.”

Maybe you already know what will trigger your grief this season. For example, if your loved one always made pancakes on Christmas morning, you can anticipate this breakfast time stirring memories that emphasize his or her absence.

However, sometimes something unexpected will trigger grief, and these moments can leave you feeling especially vulnerable.

Facing the unexpected

Grief triggers are often subtle. Maybe you see a couple holding hands over a cup of hot cider or hear a child laughing in delight outside in the snow. And in that moment, you’re taken back. But no matter what grief triggers you encounter, they have one thing in common: They can leave you feeling emotionally ambushed and vulnerable.

Since grief triggers can’t always be anticipated, they can make the holidays feel like you’re never safe from the memories and the painful emotions that follow. And as much as you may want to hibernate through this season, Thanksgiving will still be here, then Christmas, then New Year’s. Family traditions and social obligations will still exist, especially if you have children or other family members who depend on you to make this season special.

While there is no easy way through the holidays, there are strategies you can take that will help you anticipate grief triggers so that you can navigate—and even find hope—this season.

Anticipating grief triggers

Thinking through the possible grief triggers you might encounter this season will help you feel prepared to deal with emotional ambushes instead of being caught off guard.

To help you start thinking about potential grief triggers, it can help to consider your answers to the following questions:

  • When I think about the holidays, during what situations am I most worried about experiencing a grief trigger? (For example, facing social gatherings without my loved one; seeing happy families together; enduring people’s comments or questions.)

  • What are some special traditions or experiences that I shared with my loved one during the holidays? (For example, did we always watch the Thanksgiving parade? Did we put up the Christmas tree together? Did we shop for or wrap presents together?)

While thinking through these questions won’t help you anticipate every grief trigger, it will allow you to understand the different scenarios that might be especially difficult this season—and help you plan ahead.

Finding strength in vulnerability

Grief triggers can leave you feeling vulnerable, but it’s important to understand that experiencing these triggers and the subsequent emotions they bring is normal. Counselor H. Norman Wright, who experienced the death of his wife, shares: “I went to the market and heard the music we liked to listen to, and I began weeping. And that is so normal.”

The key is learning to expect grief triggers rather than trying to avoid them. When you learn to anticipate the situations and the emotions that will trigger grief, you can begin to transform these moments of vulnerability into strength.

But how do you learn to expect grief triggers, especially ones that are difficult to anticipate? There are different strategies that can be helpful, but one is to create an action plan. An action plan enables you to define a grief trigger and then anticipate how you will respond.

For example, if you know that carving the Thanksgiving turkey will be full of grief triggers because your loved one always did this job, your action plan might look something like this:

  • What is my grief trigger? Carving the Thanksgiving turkey at dinner.

  • What steps can I take to face this trigger? I will decide in advance who will carve the turkey and be prepared for that moment. If this feels like it’s more than I can handle emotionally, I could purchase a pre-carved turkey platter this year. Or maybe I will start a new tradition and buy ham instead.

Having an action plan doesn’t mean you won’t feel triggered this season, but it does mean that you can go into the holidays feeling more prepared to handle the emotions that will inevitably come.

You’re not alone

Grief can make the holidays feel isolating and lonely, and sometimes, despite your best efforts, unexpected grief triggers can still sneak up and leave you feeling emotionally drained. But the good news is that you’re not alone in this. There are people who understand what you’re going through and experts who can offer practical tips to cope this season—and you can find them at a GriefShare Surviving the Holidays event.

Surviving the Holidays is a safe, welcoming space where you will learn new ways to manage the challenges of the season—and gain encouragement and peace of mind in the process. You will leave feeling prepared to face the holidays.

Find a Surviving the Holidays 2-hour event meeting near you or online.


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