Navigating Grief During the Holidays: Understanding Your Emotions
If you’ve lost a loved one, the holidays can stir difficult feelings and cause them to surface in expected and surprising moments alike—making this season feel like an emotional roller coaster.
“Grief is like a tidal wave of sadness. In the middle of a store, when I heard ‘Silver Bells’ playing, I was transported back to a time before everything went so wrong.”
“This is our first Christmas without him. I’ve got to move away from this confusion I’m going through.”
“That first Christmas, the pain was raw and suffocating.”
Your emotions can also feel very isolating. The traditions and activities that bring other people joy and cheer are heartbreaking reminders of your loss, creating a wall of disconnect between you and people who can’t understand what you’re going through.
With all the complex emotions that come along with the holidays after loss, you might wish there were a way to just skip this season altogether. Or maybe you wonder how you can stay strong for people who depend on you to make the season special. Either way, there is good news and hope. You can learn to navigate the difficult emotional landscape of this season by taking a few small steps.
1. Realize that what you’re feeling is normal
The first step toward understanding your emotions this season is to recognize that no matter what you’re feeling, your emotions are normal and valid. Counselor H. Norman Wright, who experienced the death of his son, explains:
There’s this shadow grief that you carry. … It’s just under the surface, and every now and then something’s going to prompt it to come to the surface. It’s been over 20 years, and once or twice a year, I will be ambushed. And I will weep for my son, and I know that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need to be fixed. I will carry this for the rest of my life, and that’s certainly all right.
The shadow grief that you carry is often brought to the light during the holidays in dramatic ways due to the season’s focus on traditions, gatherings, and togetherness—all elements that are likely inextricably linked to your loved one. This is why many people feel ambushed by the emotional pain that accompanies the holidays, and they may even feel like any healing progress they’ve made during the year has disappeared.
However, when you realize these feelings are normal, your emotions will feel less like a snake in the grass waiting to strike and more like a familiar visitor. The more you recognize that emotional ambushes are okay and to be expected in grief, the more you will feel prepared to face them this season.
2. Give yourself permission to feel
The second step for understanding and managing your emotions is to allow yourself to actually feel them. Oftentimes, the emotions that arise during the holidays feel painful, and it’s natural to want to avoid pain. This avoidance can take many different forms. For example, some might say no to social invitations to avoid the questions and awkward conversations that could arise, while others will attend gatherings but put on a happy mask instead of being honest about their feelings.
However, no matter what strategy you use to avoid the pain of feeling, it will only serve as a band-aid, as your feelings grow bigger and more intense beneath. Carla, who lost her husband, explains what this might look like:
One temptation for families is that no one wants to hurt each other, so we all quietly avoid talking about the person we’ve lost—because no one wants to push anyone else over an emotional ledge. But it is good to talk about the person who’s no longer with us. I think too much silence can leave people to suffer alone, when everybody is suffering. So it’s better to walk through it together than pretend like we’re not walking through it at all.
Giving yourself permission to feel means facing your emotions instead of avoiding them. For example, if you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and someone asks how you’re doing, speak honestly instead of saying “fine.” While your honest answer might initially lead to tears and take you to a painful place you don’t want to visit, working through those feelings will lead to strength and resilience. The more you acknowledge your feelings as normal and allow yourself to experience them, the more these emotions will become familiar and less overwhelming.
3. Surround yourself with people who understand
The complex emotions that happen during the holidays can make you feel alone. This is why a third step in understanding your emotions this season is to surround yourself with people who understand what you’re experiencing. This gives you the opportunity to work through your feelings in a supportive, encouraging environment.
When emotions stay bottled up, they become pressurized. This makes them feel larger, more overwhelming, and ready to explode at any moment. But when you share your feelings, this provides a release valve. When your feelings are out in the open, they become manageable and easier to work through, which means that the next time you encounter them, you’ll know what to expect and how to handle them.
Being around people who don’t understand what you’re going through makes it difficult to be honest with your emotions. You might feel like your emotions are too big or heavy and will scare them away, or you might worry that they will judge you for feeling a way they can’t relate to. However, when you’re around someone who understands what it’s like to face the holidays after loss, it can be easier to open up because you know they will be able to empathize.
Help is available
The holidays can bring out difficult and complex emotions, but help is available. You don’t have to face this season alone. You can find people who understand what you’re going through, as well as other tips for navigating this season, at a GriefShare Surviving the Holidays event.
Surviving the Holidays is a welcoming, two-hour event designed to equip and empower you to face this season after loss, and you’ll leave feeling encouraged and supported. Find an event near you or online.