Season’s Grievings: Surviving the Winter Holidays in the Wake of Loss

Nothing seems to stir up feelings of grief quite like the winter holidays.

As a psychotherapist, and also someone who has known plenty of loss within my own circle of family and friends, I am perhaps all-too-familiar with the myriad ways people suffer during the holiday season. This time of year begins, in my view of things, with Halloween or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), picks up speed at Thanksgiving, reaches a crescendo around the winter solstice for most spiritual orientations, and then finishes itself out with Valentine’s, one of the more cursed of holidays for those who have lost intimate partners, whether it be to death, divorce or breakup.

Year-in and year-out during this extended season, I hear a familiar refrain echoed among those who are grieving. It goes something like this, “I hate this time of year.  There is so much going on — shopping and decorating to do, parties and dinners to attend — and I don’t feel like doing any of it. There is so much pressure to get into the holiday spirit, to act happy — and I don’t feel happy at all. In fact, I’m miserable. I miss Person X (or Persons X, Y, and Z) so much right now, I feel like I might scream at the next person who wishes me Happy Holidays.”

Yeah, I’ve been there, too.

holidaze-1560Even in the best of years, in the lightest of moods, people often feel at least a little stressed by the holiday hubbub. But when you’re grieving a recent loss, or even if you’re struggling with one that may have occurred years ago, warmly lit winter festivities infused with alcohol and sugar-laden foods and a seemingly endless parade of people wishing you good cheer is often the last thing that seems like a good idea.

But what, then, is a good idea?

I’ve got a few to share here, but I want to start by saying: Nothing, and I do mean nothing, especially nothing truly good for you, is going to cure the ache of a grieving heart at the holidays. The winter holidays are rife with rituals, both long-standing cultural ones and the quirky, home-crafted ones that emerge in our closest relationships. When we lose someone with whom we shared the holidays, it is natural to notice and feel their absence, which may have the effect of souring the whole scene. Given that….

Give yourself permission to feel like shit. Just because people around you may be under the spell of festivities doesn’t mean you have to join them. If you are feeling sad, angry, regretful, morose, tired, lonely or a hundred other ways of feeling bad, acknowledge it to yourself. You don’t have to Grinch and humbug on other people’s celebrations, but you also don’t have to pretend those feelings are anything other than what they are. The easiest way to get rid of a feeling you don’t like is to let yourself feel it.

Talk about it to someone. You may wish to protect young children from witnessing the depth of your sorrows, but there should be no shame around letting caring adult friends or family members know you’re struggling with feelings of grief and that the holidays are especially difficult. This is the case whether the loss was recent or years ago.

Rather than avoiding it, try meeting grief where it’s at. Grief is a fluid, unpredictable experience, utterly lacking in the discrete “stages” people so often reference. If the holidays are what bring your grief to the surface, consider using this potent time to delve into the experience. You may be needing to contend with or express some aspect of loss that might not arise at other times of the year.

Include lost loved ones in your rituals.  Just because someone is gone doesn’t mean they must be left out. Honoring lost loves can be done in countless ways — from hanging a stocking or setting a place at the dinner table for them, to telling their favorite jokes and stories, cooking their favorite dishes, making a special alter for them or having their name mentioned in religious services you attend. Do what feels meaningful to you.

Change the rituals. If the old rituals just don’t feel right anymore, or if someone you’ve lost had a special role in a holiday ritual — like who tops the Christmas tree or lights the menorah, carves the turkey or goose, hands out the gifts, says the prayers, makes the toasts, etc. — it may be time for a change. This can be anything from a small adaptation to a complete renovation. If there are roles that need to change, be mindful and open about it, perhaps even create a ritual for passing the baton to whomever will fill the role next. Be creative and fearless.

Don’t do anything at all. Believe it or not, we still have a few civil liberties in the United States, and one of them is that holidays are not compulsory. If you’re not feeling it, you’re allowed to take a pass. Just keep in mind that others may not like your choice, and that children can be especially hurt and disappointed if you cancel their holiday, as well.

Have a Plan B or an Escape Hatch. Perhaps you don’t know how you’ll feel about a holiday gathering but are willing to see what happens. To minimize the anxiety that can sometimes arise — e.g., “what if I start crying all of the sudden?” — it can help to have a Plan B or an Escape Hatch. Plan B is an alternate activity to do, including giving yourself permission to stay home, thumb through photos of the one you’re missing or kick back with a glass of wine and watch old Bette Davis films. An Escape Hatch is located by identifying a quick route out of an event space, or somewhere you can retreat to for a bit of privacy, in the event you are unexpectedly overcome by emotion and want to give yourself some space.

Take one holiday at a time. We often talk about “the holidays” as if they are a monolithic, bloated block of merry-making without interlude and nuance. But, in fact, we only ever really have the Here & Now, today. If losing a loved one should teach us anything, it’s the truth of impermanence. Use this awareness to your advantage, and don’t jump ahead in time. Greet each holiday as it arrives, allowing each to be its own experience. New Years may feel completely different than Thanksgiving. Deal with each day as it comes your way.

So those are a few options among many. If you’re really struggling, of course, you might want to seek some counseling or a support group. But just remember: No matter what, you don’t have to be a sitting duck. If you’re dreading the holidays, assert your personal power to make choices that help you take care of yourself.

And hold your grieving heart in compassion, always.

Tamara Webb, LPC, LMHC, is a psychotherapist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Email her at