The holidays involve gathering with loved ones and doing the same thing you did the year before and years before that, right? Maybe not. One out of three Americans don’t feel like celebrating the holidays this year, according to a survey by Experience Camps/The Harris Poll. The reason is feelings of grief and loss. While that may not be surprising in the middle of a pandemic, it’s striking that 70% of people also said they’re unsure what to do or say when someone they care about is grieving. And many grieving people feel pressure to continue traditions, which can leave them feeling anxious, guilty, and overwhelmed. That’s why we’ve created this list of five essential “gifts” grieving people can give themselves this holiday season.
- Give yourself a permission slip to feel whatever you feel.
It’s all too easy to feel bad if you’re down during a time of celebration, even though those feelings are totally normal. And even if you coped well last holiday season, it doesn’t mean you’ll feel okay this time around. That’s where the permission slip comes in. Do you remember getting a school hall pass as a kid, or a note from your parents allowing you not to participate in something? It got you off the hook from feeling bad or guilty that you were doing something outside of what was seen as the norm.
Try this: Give yourself permission to feel however you do, without judgement. If you are feeling down or irritable, allow yourself to experience those emotions fully. This is important because feelings, comfortable or not, give you information — and that information tells you what you want or need, helping you decide what to do next.
- Allow conflicting feelings to coexist.
We can all have contradictory feelings — I am sad and I am enjoying this moment — at the same time. Or, I’m angry they died and living without them includes feelings of peace. Allow all your feelings, thoughts and needs to be felt together. Not only is that okay, 86% of Americans agree that grief should be addressed as an important mental health issue.
Try this: Sit still and notice the thoughts or feelings that arise. You may be inclined to judge what you notice. Instead, be kind and curious. To be kind towards yourself might mean validating your feelings, “Of course you feel angry; holidays will never be the same and that’s hard.” To be curious might mean doing some inner detective work. You can ask or journal: What am I feeling right now? Where am I feeling it in my body, and what is that like? What am I thinking about the holidays, and how am I feeling about those thoughts?
- Give yourself room to change the game plan.
Once you are clear about how you are feeling and what you want, it can be easier to make decisions about what to do. You might want to do the same things you did in the past, and you might not. Most people do not know the “right” thing to say to someone dealing with grief, and they try to help by telling us what we “should” do. Thank them for their concern (or don’t) and redirect your focus on what is best for you now. Spending the holiday with friends or eating out, for example, may not be the way you are used to doing things — but you can create a new game plan this year, without committing to it forever.
Try this: Remember that there is no “box” that you have to fit in. You can participate or not participate in whatever feels right for you, and you can attend an event without staying the entire time. Pushing yourself to overcome challenges is a positive thing, but it’s just as important to know when to opt out of something or change the game plan. Think of it as an experiment. Plans aren’t set in stone.
- Plan how you will keep to traditions — or declare a new one.
Whether you want to do all the things or none of the things, there is no rule that you have to carry forward specific traditions or roles. Maybe Dad always hung the lights, or your sister always recited a prayer before the meal. Plan ahead and decide who will take over the role, or whether you’re ready to let go of the tradition. Creating new traditions is another way to deal with grief, without erasing your memories of the person who died. As author David Kessler says, when someone dies, the relationship doesn’t die with them.
Try this: Think about one new thing you might want to try. Do you want to go on a trip this season? Volunteer as a family? Swap turkey for an unfamiliar cuisine? The possibilities are endless, and considering options doesn’t mean you need to commit right away — or forever. Consider asking friends or colleagues about their favorite traditions for inspiration.
- Get on the same page with the rest of the family.
You may want to keep all the original traditions and hold them as sacred parts of your holiday experience, while another family member may want to replace them altogether — or they might feel just as you do. Ask about each person’s preferences and find compromises that can deepen your connections. There is no right way to handle this; there is just the power of clarity and knowing you’re on the same page this year.
Try this: Think about new ways to celebrate being together. Perhaps the person who wants to continue a tradition can take full ownership of doing it. Maybe everyone in the family gets to skip one part of the holidays, guilt-free. Maybe each family member gets to incorporate one meaningful tradition, old or new. If you need help starting the conversation, visit TalkAboutGrief.org.
Remember, feelings of grief are one thing we all experience at some point in our lives. By talking about grief, we can make more room for moments of peace this holiday season and beyond.
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Dr. Victoria Grinman, PhD, LCSW-R is an international speaker, coach and clinician for Experience Camps, a national nonprofit that champions the nation’s 5.3 million bereaved children and runs a network of no-cost summer camps that equip grieving children with the confidence, coping skills and community to move forward and live a life full of possibility. A graduate of Adelphi University and Columbia School of Social Work, her passion in life is supporting people through trauma to help them thrive.