How to Survive the Holidays After Losing Someone You Love

I still remember all the firsts. The first vacation. First birthday. Our first Christmas without Dad. That feeling of trying to celebrate the holidays while a piece of our heart and home was missing.

Holidays are naturally a big deal and loss can feel even deeper during those times that magnify our togetherness.

This year, over 300,000 families will wake up Christmas morning without their loved one. Our family will once again experience another first Christmas without someone one we love. This year, the celebration may feel a little less merry and bright.

Grief can be challenging and confusing. Sometimes it feels like you’re drowning, other times like you’re being hollowed out from the inside. Overstimulated, yet numb at the same time. The stages of grief can feel cyclical and repetitive, causing you to wonder if life will ever feel normal again.

It can be difficult to get through a holiday that celebrates family when you are missing a family member. If you find yourself facing your first Christmas without someone you love, here are a few coping strategies I have learned that can help with the heartache:

Recognize this season could be hard, and that is okay

A traumatic loss can shatter your assumptions and expectations about the world; the belief that it is relatively predictable and safe (Bessel van der Kolk). These events and the disruption of your internal world can overwhelm your ability to grasp, adapt and cope with what has happened.

Going into a holiday with grief means it is okay if you are not okay.

We don’t all have to grieve or cope the same way. What’s important is staying present and attuned to what you are feeling without judging or shaming yourself for struggling. Finding a healthy way to cope can protect from traps like self-blame, rumination, catastrophizing and survivor’s guilt.

Give yourself the time and space to grieve

A lot has changed, and changes are still to come. Your sense of normalcy has been uprooted and the future may feel unclear. Recognize that your mind has been trying to grasp and rapidly process your circumstances at warp speed. You’ve had a lot thrown at you in a short span of time. Try not to be hard on yourself if you are struggling to cope.

There is no set rule for what “normal” grief should look like or how long it should take.  As much as possible, try to accept how you feel. It is normal to experience a vast range of emotions at any given moment or be triggered by the smallest thing. It doesn’t mean something is wrong, it just means you are grieving and trying to adjust to the reality of the loss.

It’s important to process and regulate your emotions. Fighting, stuffing or avoiding your feelings can end up having harmful effects on your psychological and physical health. Time may not heal all wounds but it does diminish the intensity of the pain. Accept whatever stage of grief you find yourself in right now without self-judgment or condemnation. You can get through this and you don’t have to do it alone.

Talk to (be with) other people who are grieving the same loss

Grief can feel very isolating. But there are many people who have lost loved ones and understand what you are experiencing. Other family members are likely going through their own experience of the same loss too. A child, grandchild, spouse, parent, sibling, friend – each one had a unique relationship with the deceased and all are experiencing grief on some level.

A social support structure can provide a source of comfort and stability during a time of crisis. Processing your grief with other family members or friends can create a special feeling of togetherness and comfort. Sharing stories, memories, watching home videos and looking at pictures together can make a big difference and combat the loneliness that comes with grief.

Consider reaching out to safe, compassionate people and let them know that you are struggling.

Meet with a therapist or support group

When coping with grief, it can be difficult to differentiate between the events, triggers and your emotions. If you don’t have a safe person to talk to, consider reaching out to a counselor or joining a Grief Share support group. COVID-19 has now made it possible to virtually access appointments from the comfort of your own home.

Grief can become delayed or complicated by a number of factors:

  • Your age at the time of the loss
  • Previous experience with loss, trauma or mental illness
  • How close you were to the deceased
  • The degree of dependency in the relationship
  • Whether the loss was sudden or expected
  • The circumstances surrounding the loss

It’s important to recognize the signs of complicated grief. If you start noticing changes in all your relationships, feelings of meaninglessness, a rupture in your belief-system, or the inability to complete daily tasks that does not improve after a year,  talk to a therapist who can help provide clarity and hope during this difficult time.

Practice self-care

Grief takes a toll on the whole body. When you feel overwhelmed by all that’s being thrown at you, it can lead to a host of physical symptoms. It can disrupt your sleep, your mood, your appetite, your interests, and your desire for social interaction.

As you process your feelings, it’s important to continue taking care of your body and maintain your health by getting enough nutrition, sleep and exercise. Your mental and emotional needs are also just as important as the physical ones. When you are grieving and hurting, your needs may vary depending on the moment.

Do you need comfort? Empathy? Connection with others? Time alone? Rest? Distraction? Purposeful work?

Once you know what you need, think of ways that you can meet those needs. You could call a friend, get takeout so you don’t need to cook, or do an activity that is relaxing, creative or inspiring. You could journal your thoughts or take time off of work to rest. Comfort may be something as simple as a good movie, a warm drink, a favorite song or activity you enjoy.

Taking care of yourself and your needs is not selfish, it’s a necessary skill for survival.

Celebrate the memories

Holidays can be a painful time but it can also be a time of remembrance. You can choose to honor your loved one and their memory in a way that is meaningful to you.

Every year I bake my Dad’s favorite Christmas cookies as a way of remembering him and the fun traditions we shared. It can be as simple as hanging their favorite ornament, creating a memory journal, donating to their favorite charity, doing an activity as a family or carrying on a favorite tradition. You can cherish old Christmas memories while creating new ones. Even though they are gone, their memory and legacy stills live on inside of you.

Take things one day at a time

Grief will be a process. Emotions may come in waves or at certain sentimental times of the year. Over time, the intensity of the sadness will fade.

Until then, focusing on one day at a time can help you feel more in control and less overwhelmed. It helps to slow things down. Take inventory of how you are feeling today. Understand what you need today and find a healthy way to meet those needs.

When Christmas Day comes, you may feel a range of emotions and that’s okay. Sorrow and joy can go hand in hand as we cherish the good times and grieve the bad.

Turn to the God of all comfort

Loss and grief are a normal part of living in this broken world. God never intended for us to experience the kind of severed connection that comes with death. When sin entered humanity, it brought with it all kinds of pain and destruction.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he has covered our sin and restored us once again to a personal relationship with God. That is a connection that can never be broken, a relationship that can never be lost. Those who trust in Jesus as Savior will one day see each other again.

Until that joyous day, we can take comfort knowing that God is with us in both the good times and bad. He will never leave us nor abandon us. He is the only person in life that remains constant. His rescuing power keeps His people from being crushed, destroyed, abandoned or in complete despair (2 Cor 4:8-9).

God takes it upon Himself to heal the brokenhearted (Ps 34:18). When you are discouraged, God’s presence is near (Phil 4:5). When you grieve, he keeps record of your tears and will one day wipe them away for good (Ps 56:8, Rev 21:4). He hears the sound of your grief and responds with compassion and healing (Psalm 6).  When you are depressed, God is the one who comforts and encourages (2 Cor 1:3-4, 7:6). Jesus both sustains and gives rest to the weary soul (Matt 11:28). He is with you in the valley of shadows and stands ready to help when you cry out to Him (Ps 61:2).

We can find comfort and joy in the arms of our loving Father. When we trust in Him and His promises, the outcome will always be peace and rest. Emmanuel, our God, is with us; our cares, He carries.

A holiday season overshadowed by grief can be challenging, but you are not alone. This season, give yourself the space and time you need to heal and process your loss. Reach out to others who can comfort, encourage and help. Practice coping strategies that can help you regulate your emotions and bring some relief. And may the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, be near you and sustain you in this difficult time.

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For more on healthy coping strategies and the emotions that come with grief, check out my series on How to Navigate Your Emotions during this pandemic. 

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