When grief comes to visit for the holidays

As the Christmas “season” has continued to expand, extending all the way back to Thanksgiving and (at least commercially) even to Halloween, our expectations for what this season should bring have increased along with it.

We (often subconsciously) expect that the entire season should be filled to the brim with happiness, joy, and peaceful togetherness with loved ones.

But life does not take a break for our extended holiday period. Just in my own small circle of friends, I know so many who are grieving the loss of loved ones, facing serious health challenges, dealing with the changed financial circumstances that go with job loss, and so many other hardships in addition to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.

What do we do when grief and brokenness come to visit during this season when we are expecting unending joy and celebration?

Rather than soldier on trying to keep the grief at bay so we can keep up our merry appearances, it is much more healing to welcome grief into the season instead.

Treat it like that difficult relative who you welcome to the table even when you’d rather hoped they’d stay away this year.

Keep this difficult guest in mind as you make your plans for the holiday.

Choose your plans with grief in mind

Which of your usual festivities—including parties, gift giving, decorating, baking, card writing, religious services, and holiday music playing—will still bring a bit of cheer and ease into this time for you? Which of them will compound your grief this year?

Honor your grief by choosing to participate only in those that are life-giving and healing for you in this moment. The others will still be there for next year, if you are ready for them then.

Keep in mind that even those options that are ultimately life-giving and healing may still bring up moments of grief and loss as you remember happier seasons in the past before you lost the person or circumstances that you are now grieving.

Depending on where you are in the grieving process, a given tradition may bring bittersweet memories that are healing as you honor that which you have lost (even if it also bring tears) or it may overwhelm you with raw grief as it reminds you of what (or who) is no longer here. Choose the bittersweet options and avoid the outright painful ones when you can.

Set your expectations consciously

Most of our unrealistic expectations for this holiday season live just below the surface in our subconscious conditioning. One of the biggest ways this often shows up is in the guilt we pile on ourselves when we can’t do it all and can’t be unendingly merry this season.

Re-setting those expectations requires making a conscious effort and will likely need to be revisited repeatedly throughout the season as we fall back into old habits, especially as the advertising and media we consume tend to fuel those unrealistic expectations exponentially without us realizing it.

How do you need to adjust your expectations of your experience of this holiday season to make room for your current circumstances and the grief those circumstances bring?

How can you release any guilt that might try to creep in when you worry that you are not meeting other people’s expectations of you this season?

Give yourself the gift of being exactly where you are in your grief journey whether others understand it or not. You are not responsible for their reactions to you or for the expectations they bring to the table. Do what you can, and let go of the rest.

Make space for your grief

The holidays often add an extra layer of busyness to our already busy lives, but grief needs space to unwind its layers and breathe deeply to bring healing to your wounds.

As you go through this season, intentionally create space for your grief as you would provide space for a guest in your home.

Set aside time to allow yourself the space to grieve as deeply as you need to.

Find supportive people (friends, loved ones, or professionals) to help you along this journey and spend time with them this season. Likewise, limit the time you spend with those who are unable to be supportive right now, even if they are family.

Intentionally choose to make time for activities, like prayer, yoga, meditation, journaling, exercise, or other helpful practices, that support your grief and your healing. At the same, limit those activities that can inhibit healing, like drinking too much alcohol or spending time too much time engaging with advertising or social media this season.

There is no greater gift you can give yourself than to let yourself be where you are this season. Honor your grief, make space for it, and intentionally choose your activities and expectations for the season to nurture yourself through this time as thoroughly as possible.


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2 thoughts on “When grief comes to visit for the holidays

  • December 8, 2021 at 9:13 pm

    Lost my best friend from cancer in August. This is very timely. Thank you Kenetha!

    • December 9, 2021 at 5:26 am

      I’m so sorry you lost your friend, Jody. Losing a best friend is hard and is often a relatively unacknowledged loss. I’m glad my suggestions help as you face the holidays this year.

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