Coping with Loss During the Holiday Season

For children, the holiday season is typically a time of unmitigated joy and pure pleasure—but once you get a bit older, you start to realize just how much of a dark side the holiday season can have. Not for nothing did Elvis Presley popularize the term blue Christmas: For many adults, the span of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is an especially difficult one, abounding in pained reminders of loss.

And if it’s your first holiday season since experiencing a significant loss, making it through December can be all the more difficult. Studies show that the time surrounding Christmas is especially fertile for issues of depression and severe psychiatric symptoms—and that loneliness and loss are foremost among the reasons for these symptoms.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate sees a 40 percent uptick in the days immediately following Christmas—no doubt as individuals find that they simply cannot cope with the memories and feelings that the holiday can evoke.

Your Grief Journey: Some Rules of the Road

There is no denying that, for those experiencing a fresh loss, the holidays can be brutal. Perhaps the first step toward forward is simply to admit that, and to brace yourself for a season that will not be without its challenges.

With that said, it is possible to have a holiday season that is not just tolerable, but even, at times, joyful and hopeful. You can find healthy ways to grieve even during the months of November and December, and also find ways to treasure your friends and family even as you’re dealing with lingering bereavement.

Some tips for doing so include:

Don’t cancel the holidays. First and foremost… as much as you may dread the holidays this year, it’s unwise to effectively call them off. Limiting your celebrations is one thing—and we’ll come to that in a moment. But make sure you don’t isolate yourself completely. It’s important to keep some hold on your usual holiday festivities.

Let your family and friends into your life. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Let them know of any changes to your normal holiday plans, but also invite them to spend time with you and enjoy some celebratory moments together.

Set realistic expectations for yourself. Again, this is not going to be an easy season, and it’s not going to be a holiday season like any other you’ve had in your life. This means you may not be able to do all the things you normally do during the holidays—and that’s okay! If you feel as though you’re not quite up to hosting the annual family Christmas gathering, ask someone else in the family to take over. No one will blame you.

Make things easy for yourself. Along similar lines, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to lean on others to help you deal with holiday responsibilities. Take family members up on their offers to prepare meals. Hire a professional cleaning service to get your home holiday-ready. Do your shopping on instead of heading down to the department stores. As you set aside some time for grieving and recovery, don’t hesitate to mitigate your usual holiday season chores.

Allow yourself to feel. You may find yourself running through a broad spectrum of emotions during the holidays—and that’s fine. People grieve in different ways and their mourning takes different forms. You may find yourself wanting to cry on some days, or ball up in anger, frustration, or sadness. Other days, you may find yourself laughing, even feeling joyful. All of that’s fine and all of that’s natural. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling different things.

Be mindful of holiday temptations. Around the holidays, it can be more tempting than ever to self-medicate with drugs or, more likely, alcohol—if only because alcohol is usually flowing freely at holiday gatherings. You don’t have to suddenly become a non-drinker during the holidays, but do be sure to take care of yourself. If you need to find a new, healthy outlet for your feelings, try something like journaling, yoga, or running on the treadmill.

Start new traditions. Your loss will surely mean that this will be a different holiday season then any you’ve ever known—but why not embrace that? Think of some new ways to spend time with friends and families, and find meaning in the creation of new rituals.

Give back. Many mourners find some solace in doing good things for other people. Use the holidays as a time to make donations to charity, or to volunteer. It won’t make you forget your grief, and shouldn’t. It just might help you to feel fuller, more at peace, over the holidays.

It’s never easy to make it through the holidays without someone you dearly love—yet it remains a season rich in opportunities for community, for gratitude, and for joy. Use these tips to make this holiday season a meaningful one, even as you continue on your grief journey.  For further assistance managing your grief—while living your life—visit

Mary Ellen Wasielewski