The Holidays and Grief: How to Cope When a Loved One is Missing

The Holidays and Grief: How to Cope When a Loved One is Missing

The holiday season is a busy and stressful time for most of us.  But when a member of the family is missing through death, divorce, deployment, or other life transitions, the holidays can feel altered in a way that makes it difficult to celebrate.  Here are some tips to help you navigate the world when everyone is celebrating but you:

  1. Acknowledge that something has changed — and then change your expectations.  It’s tough to abide by holiday routines, invitations, and celebrations when nothing feels the way it should.  Let people know that the holidays will be tough for you this year.  It’s okay if you’re just not feeling it, and it’s okay to put boundaries about what you can, and cannot, participate in.
  2. Make conscious decisions about the traditions you want to uphold – and the ones you feel okay letting go of this year. People need traditions and rituals to anchor us to a sense of order and meaning, and this is particularly true when life gets up-ended.  Some holiday rituals and traditions help us feel connected to our values and our loved ones – and others are a lot less meaningful.  Scale back a bit and focus on the activities, relationships, and rituals that foster comfort and connection.  If there are particular traditions or activities that remind you of the loved one you’re missing, continue with them if doing so brings you comfort.
  3. Take care of your body so your body can support your grief and capacity to cope.   This time of year is often accompanied by ample opportunities to indulge, and this can be particularly dicey for those of us who find comfort in food, alcohol, and being busy.  However, our minds and hearts will be in the best position to adjust to a changed world when we are rested, well-nourished, hydrated, and moving.  Make sure you are prioritizing quiet time and self-care, and be particularly careful about indulging when you’re HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired).
  4. Take time to remember.  When we are acutely aware of someone’s absence, intentionally making the time and space to remember them is important.  Looking at photos, jotting down favorite memories, and sharing stories about our loved ones can make us feel closer to them while saving space for them to still be part of our life.  During holiday time, it may be good to think about how we can include missing loved ones in our celebrations in a way that does not require their physical presence.  For example, including a loved one’s favorite food on the holiday menu, or placing a favorite ornament at the top of the tree, can ‘save space’ for someone we miss and honor them in a loving way.
  5. Ask for help.  When everyone around you is celebrating – and you just aren’t in the holiday mood, or you are afraid the holidays will trigger your sadness – it is important to put yourself in the path of others who understand how difficult this time of year can be.  Seeing a counselor, attending a grief support group, or participating in an online chat with others who are struggling can make us feel a lot less alone. 
  6. Be of service.  One of the best ways to help ourselves is to do something that requires us to step outside our own struggles – and serving others is a great way to do this.  Giving is part of holiday rituals for many people – but giving to those whose needs and struggles exceed our own is a great way to recognize that we all have the capacity to help others, even as we are hurting.  Doing something to help others in honor or memory of a loved one is also a great way to pay tribute to those we are missing at this time of year.

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