When the Holidays Make Your Grief Bigger

how to navigate the holidays while grieving

Everyone has a story. When I meet people for the first time and express genuine interest in their lives, many respond dismissively. “Oh, my life isn’t that exciting. It’s pretty boring actually.” But what life is truly lived without both love and loss?

We All Grieve

Those of you who are reading this might be thinking about your own grief journey right now…

Some of you are waiting to be blessed with a child as you struggle with infertility. There is grief in that emptiness.

Others of you may have recently lost a loved one who made the holidays warm and inviting, and you aren’t sure how things will ever be the same. Your grief is in the uncertainty.

You may dread the holidays, because the memories of your childhood were of neglect, abuse, divorce, and instability. Your grief is in the past.

Perhaps you have a spouse suffering from cancer or recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Maybe your child has a mental illness or physical disability, and the holidays are bittersweet as you remember the goodness of the past but lament the current battle. Your grief is in the present.

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When the Holidays Amplify Your Grief

Coming together during times of supposed merriment makes your grief bigger. You don’t want to be the dark cloud that descends upon everyone else’s mirth. But you can’t fake how you don’t feel, either.

Forgiveness is about Healing

What if you thought about everyone in your family and what they might be going through, too? Even if you come from relatives who don’t discuss difficult issues, it’s easier to be compassionate with them when you consider where they’ve been: maybe divorce, losing a child or a job, estrangement from a sibling, and so on.

Forgiveness softens the heart so that it can be receptive to love again.

Change Your Expectations of the Holidays

Despite cultural norms and expectations, the holidays do not have to be cookie-cutter replicas of what you see in catalogs or TV ads. You don’t have to cook a big meal; it’s okay if you decide to order in instead.

One year, my family and I celebrated Thanksgiving non-traditionally. I had recently lost my great-grandma, and no one really felt much taking the initiative to cook all of our favorite recipes. It was draining and daunting. We were in the throes of grief. So we decided to make reservations at the lone restaurant in town that was serving a full, traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings.

Remove the Pressure

It wasn’t the same that year. In fact, most of us lamented about how depressing Thanksgiving was. But we took the pressure off each other and tried to enjoy the company of kin.

Sometimes gathering together dredges up old–or fresh–wounds, and we’d rather avoid family altogether. But it’s possible for you and I to start the conversation, however difficult it may be, about shifting the family traditions and expectations to meet the needs of those responsible for cooking, cleaning, decorating, and shopping.

Simplify the Way You Celebrate the Season

My husband and I have a daughter with a rare disease. She has fifteen specialists and counting, many of whom she sees weekly or monthly. Maintaining my childhood dreams of baking every cookie recipe from scratch, decorating with inherited heirlooms, shopping for loads of gifts, and cooking a lavish feast simply add more stress and overwhelm to my life.

I had a conversation with my parents a few years ago about how I felt about Christmas and that both Ben and I wanted to simplify it for so many reasons. At first, my parents were reluctant to pare down baking from six varieties of cookies to only three. Because, as my mom said, “But these were my mother’s recipes!” It was a hard conversation, but a necessary one.

Find Your “Something New”

We decided as a family to slowly drop the traditions that were too cumbersome and adopt new ones that truly gave us a sense of joy, rather than dread. Instead of the glut of gifts, we started drawing names and limited our budgets and items purchased.

As with everything in life, there will be sadness when you choose to change the way your family celebrates the holidays. All of change is scary and involves losing one thing. But we have to remember that change also involves gaining something new.

That something new is what can sustain you in your grief, so that the emotional weight you are feeling is not magnified by the burdens of expectations imposed upon you by yourself or someone else.

Kind and Carried

The best way to handle grief that is exacerbated by the holidays is to be kind. Extending mercy to yourself in the midst of the stress you are feeling, as well as being generous to others who are struggling, is one giant leap toward being open to experiencing the holidays in new and unexpected ways.

Jesus Himself was born into a grievous situation: His life was in danger, and His family had to flee in the middle of the night in order to protect Him. He was poor. He worked hard. He was lonely. His friends abandoned Him.

Cling to Him in this season of your grief. When you open your heart, He will fill it with lasting spiritual gifts of consolation and healing.

How can we help carry and console you during your time of grief?

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Jeannie Ewing is a Catholic spirituality writer who focuses on grief, redemptive suffering, and waiting. Find out more about her here.

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  • Reply
    December 11, 2018 at 10:33 am

    Thank you, Jeannie, for a great article. Cutting back, doing what brings you joy and being kind to myself and others are points that stand out to me. In processing my own grief during the holidays, I have also found it important to make the time to grieve. I find that if I do not give myself time to grieve, my grief will come up at unexpected and unwanted times (like when I am surrounded by others) and will be more difficult for me to deal with. By scheduling time to process through my grief, talk to someone I trust about it, pray, and pour my heart out to Jesus, I can heal. I can approach the holidays (or and day) with more joy and less sadness.

  • Reply
    Sarah Cummings
    December 20, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    Great post! It’s truly hard to celebrate during this season as opposed to being cheerful, this is the time we feel unfilled. We’re looking for something that will make us completely happy. Despite being with relatives, we still feel the emptiness inside us. Thanks for these tips!

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