Holiday Grief

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—at least, that’s what the song tells us. And for many, the holiday season with its lights, decorations and gift-giving is indeed a source of joy and merriment to be shared with family and friends. But for others, it can bring immense pain, only accentuating the feelings of loss over a loved one who is no longer present.

“It’s traditionally a joyful time of the year, a time of celebration. But for lots of us, it's also a time when we're grieving,” says Katie McCarthy, manager of the Grief Counseling Center at Hosparus Health, which has been serving families in Kentucky and Southern Indiana since 1978. “It's a time of memories for everybody. If we've lost a loved one to death in the last year, we really are also experiencing memories as a time of grieving. It's very bittersweet.”

Any special occasion, such as birthdays or anniversaries, can make feelings of loss that much more acute. But the holidays can be challenging for someone who is grieving because they feel left out of the celebrations going on all around them.

“In particular, that first year and those first anniversaries, holidays or birthdays of that loved one, we really are experiencing a different biochemistry in our brains and in our bodies,” McCarthy says. “We will feel physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and even socially different. That's backed up by research that shows the chemistry in our brains is different after a loss.” It can take up to two years for the chemicals in the human brain to return to a normal balance after a profound loss.

For someone experiencing that first Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s Eve without a loved one at their side, it can be especially challenging. Fortunately, they don’t have to endure it alone—here are five coping mechanisms that friends and families can use to help those dealing with loss navigate a difficult time of year.

Let them know they’re not alone

The holidays can be particularly isolating for those dealing with grief, making them feel like the odd person out. Those emotions can be exacerbated by the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forces social distance and isn’t allowing families to gather to the degree they would in normal times. That makes it particularly important for friends and family members to reach out and let the grieving person know they are not alone.

“Anything that we're doing to cope during holidays, because of COVID, we have to turn that volume up even more for someone who's grieving,” McCarthy says. “We want to make sure that we figure out a safe way to still celebrate with each other. Even if it's virtually for the holidays, we need to find the energy to do that—to make those virtual connections, or have safe ways to be with people physically, even if it's outside and 6 feet apart.”

Remember those who have passed

While a loved one may physically have passed, their spirit remains. During the holidays, part of the coping process is remembering the person who is no longer with us through stories or other activities. “It might hurt,” McCarthy says, “but the more we get feelings out about our loss, the healthier we will become.”

Take cues from the grieving friend or family member as to the best way to incorporate memories of the deceased into holiday activities. They may want to use dishes or cook certain foods that remind them of their lost loved one. McCarthy’s own family offers an example: each Christmas, they make ravioli using her late grandmother’s recipe, rolling the dough with her rolling pin.

“Every year, there's less grief and more joy,” she says. “Even though my children who are teenagers at this point didn't know her, they know their Italian grandmother through her ravioli. That’s a great example of how something that was originally a grieving tool becomes a holiday ritual.”

Keep communication open

While the grieving process can differ from one culture or religion to another, in any case, it’s important for friends and family members to be responsive to the wishes of the bereaved. That open dialogue goes both ways. “It really is important to communicate, and to say what you need, and to own your feelings,” McCarthy says of those experiencing loss.

“You don’t necessarily expect anybody else to take care of your feelings, but hopefully to be respectful of them. I know for me, when I say what I feel, I cut the power of those feelings in half every time I verbalize them out loud. That's a good mental health tool. Often, there are people who are going to witness those feelings or mirror those feelings for me and help me hold them with care and respect. And that's important.”

Involve them in activities

During a Hosparus memorial service around Thanksgiving, McCarthy’s clients used art therapy to make containers—vessels that can symbolically hold pain and loss but can later be filled with memories of the deceased loved one and hope for the future. Drawing with children, making small commemorative objects that can be placed on a windowsill, or even being involved in holiday routines like baking can help manage the grief.

“We now know even more about brain chemistry, and being active with your feelings will promote healthy change and growth much more than just thinking or even talking about them,” McCarthy says. “The making and doing is something that I would particularly recommend as an art therapist.”

Know help is available

Even if family members are far away or sequestered to their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic, no one must suffer through grief during the holidays alone. “There’s always somebody out there,” McCarthy says. Professionals at the Hosparus Health Grief Counseling Center are available at (502) 456-5451, with counseling available at rates based on income and ability to pay. Hosparus Grief Counseling support groups are all virtual at this time and always free of charge. 

“I think lots of times in our culture, especially certain segments of our society, there's a stigma that says we're not supposed to feel bad. We're supposed to feel happy, particularly at the holidays,” McCarthy adds.

“Life is often hard, and we are meant to be with one another. Hopefully, people know that they can reach out to Hosparus Grief Counseling and lots and lots of others out there, me included. The load is lightened, even grief, when we bear it with one another.”

Interested in learning more about how you can help friends or family members navigate the holidays after losing a loved one? Contact Hosparus Health Grief Counseling at (502) 456-5451, peruse their schedule of virtual support groups, or visit their website at HosparusHealth.org.