Content warning: Discussion of grief and loss
Grief is the mirror image of love.
Maybe that’s what makes the winter holidays so hard: We’re surrounded by traditions and gatherings all centered on the idea of love. We’re expected to feel happy: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” And all that pressure can make us feel like there’s no room to express our most painful emotions.
When you’ve lost a loved one, the holidays may feel insurmountable. And while it may never be comfortable or easy, there are skills and strategies you can use to honor your loved one this holiday season, even in times of grief.
Luana Marques, PhD, is a Mass General Brigham psychologist. She is the director of Community Psychiatry PRIDE at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Below, she explains what makes grief during the holidays so hard to hold and explains how you can manage grief and honor lost loved ones during the holidays.
“Grief is the anguish someone experiences when they lose someone they love,” says Dr. Marques. “It has a sort of reverb. A person you love is gone.”
For many people, grief is most intense when they have first lost someone they love. Dr. Marques explains this as “acute pain.” Everyone grieves differently—so while one person may experience acute pain for days or weeks, another may feel it for a month or more.
“Over time, most people are able to integrate their grief,” says Dr. Marques. “Eventually, they find that the grief is still there, but it’s not as prominent anymore. People can move their grief from their heads to their hearts and keep their loved one with them in a different way. And they’re able to move on through life.”
But some people find that their grief is too tough to digest in quite the same way. “There’s a diagnosis called prolonged grief disorder (PGD),” Dr. Marques explains, “where someone gets stuck on grief and can’t move forward. They may find themselves thinking a lot about their loss, wishing their loved one could be present more, crying, feeling depressed. They may have trouble sleeping. Their pain feels as acute as if the person had just passed.”
No matter where you are in your relationship with grief, you’re likely to find that the holidays trigger more intense emotions.
But what makes the holidays so hard?
“What happens with any kind of anniversary or moment where your relationship with a loved one was so important is that when that time comes around, memories come up,” says Dr. Marques. “For some people, the holidays become hard because you had a tradition and now something’s missing. Others just pause more and reflect more, and those painful feelings of grief come up.”
Between seasonal music and advertisements, decorations, and gatherings, the holiday season is hard to miss. And even when you want to join in holiday celebrations, there are unspoken pressures that can take a toll on your mental health.
There’s a social misconception that it’s not okay to express your emotions. Many of us are taught to avoid negative feelings and find ways to numb ourselves until pain passes. And during the holidays, there’s even more pressure to smile and act happy.
But in fact, cutting ourselves off from our emotions is harmful, and can prevent us from healing. “Being able to feel your emotions is actually very important,” says Dr. Marques. “Some people get stuck in grief when they avoid expressing emotions.”
One of the first piece of advice Dr. Marques offers for people who are missing loved ones during the holidays goes against that pressure: “Create space for your emotions,” she says. “Allow them to exist in such a way that you’re not running toward new feelings. By doing that, you’re integrating your grief.”
That might feel easier said than done—especially when you’re dealing with major emotions. But, as Dr. Marques explains, allowing yourself to feel your feelings is the best way to build up tolerance and work through grief. “Emotions are 100% part of life,” she says. “And if you feel them, they tend to come down. Allow yourself to feel your grief and know that it is actually the psychologically healthy thing to do.”
It is possible to create space for your feelings while joining in holiday festivities. One approach Dr. Marques suggests is finding ways to honor your loved one and incorporate them into your holiday traditions. This might look like:
“It has to be something you’re ready for,” Dr. Marques says. “And there might be tears—there should be tears. But often when people honor a loved one at the holidays, they feel like that person was part of their celebration.”
If someone close to you has suffered a loss, it can be difficult to know just how to support them—at the holidays or any time of year.
“The best way relatives, loved ones, and friends can be of support to people in grief is by asking what support looks like,” says Dr. Marques. “We often assume we know what people need, but the reality is that it’s much better and more supportive if you talk to them about it. Try saying, ‘Hey friend, I’ve noticed that this time of year is really hard for you. What would be one thing I can do that would help you get through it?’”
For some people, accepting help can be difficult. If your loved one isn’t able to pinpoint a helpful solution, that’s okay.
“There are lots of people in the world who feel uncomfortable with help because it makes them feel broken. So, if you ask them what they need and they say they don’t know, try asking: ‘What’s one thing you do for yourself that you find helpful?’”
It can also be helpful to offer your loved one something concrete that you know could be helpful, like taking a walk or going for a drive without the pressure of having to talk about their feelings.
You may also consider sharing helpful resources for coping with grief:
There is no right way to grieve, and no right way to adapt to loss. As Dr. Marques emphasizes, the most important thing you can do is allow yourself the space to feel.
“I often describe emotions like this: Imagine you’re surfing in Hawaii, there’s a big wave coming, and you surf to the top,” she says. “What most of us want to do is jump off that board. We think, ‘No, no, it’s too much.’ But if you jump off, what happens? You get really hurt. It can be scary to hold out and surf back to shore—but in the long term, it’s the most adaptive thing to do.”