For 23-year-old Natalie*, the holidays are really hard. Two years ago, she lost her father to brain cancer, and celebrating Christmas hasn’t been the same since. “I feel like my dad should be here. Since he’s not, I have this constant back and forth internally about how I ‘should’ be feeling,” the media professional says. “My family stopped having extravagant Christmas celebrations since my siblings and I grew up, so I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing out on the holidays. But it still sucks to see your friends on social media enjoying the season with their big ol’ happy families.”
“I’m pretty much avoiding thinking about the actual day altogether,” she adds. Natalie is not alone in dreading the holidays. For many people, the season brings up feelings of sadness, anxiety, and isolation. This is especially true for those grieving a loved one or dealing with new family dynamics.
Feelings of grief can be even more apparent when it seems like everyone around you is happy and joyful, said Andrea Warnick, a registered psychotherapist who specializes in grief counseling. “[The holidays] are a time where there’s so much emphasis on family and community, and, so often, somebody’s absence is that much more obvious,” she explains.
How can we cope with grief during the holidays?
Even though the holidays place an emphasis on celebrating with family, it’s perfectly okay if that messaging doesn’t resonate with you. Warnick says it’s important to give yourself space to feel sadness. Allow yourself to process any emotion you may have. She stresses that these emotions are normal and healthy. “It’s important to keep in mind that grief takes energy. So often, we don’t have the same energy to be going full-speed as we may have in previous years,” she says. “We actually have to design the holidays in a way where we’re giving ourselves more time for the grief.”
It’s okay to say ‘no.’
Part of giving yourself space to process loss is learning to say no. While it’s important to stay connected to loved ones, you don’t need to hit up every holiday event if you don’t feel like it. “If you’re grieving, you often get extra invites to things. People really want to make sure you don’t feel left out,” Warnick said. “I find a lot of people struggle in navigating that [and think], ‘Should I say yes to all these things that I don’t actually want to go to?’”
The answer is no, Warnick says. You don’t need to overcommit yourself or attend holiday parties just because you feel obligated. If you’re really not feeling up for socializing, it’s healthy to spend time doing something that benefits you.
“You may need to be very selective about what you say yes to, what you actually want to attend, and what you don’t,” Warnick explains. “And don’t fall into the ‘shoulds,’ like, ‘I should go to this.’”
Take time for yourself.
Warnick says self-care is incredibly important during emotionally challenging times. Doing something that feels good for you and helps you decompress, whether that’s running outdoors, watching a movie, or baking a dessert. “Maybe you want to stay in with hot chocolate and read a good book. Do that,” she advises.
For Natalie, seeing friends post photos of their happy families during the holidays is upsetting. So, she tries to stay offline as much as she can this time of year to benefit her mental health. “Last November, I deactivated my Instagram until the New Year once the holiday pictures and posts started rolling in,” she said. “It really messes with your head when you’re seeing photos of people’s families and their holiday celebrations, knowing that yours will never be the same.”
Honor a loved one’s memory.
Just because someone has passed away doesn’t mean that they can no longer be included in celebrations. During the holidays, it can be really therapeutic to honor someone’s memory by including them in traditions or remembering them in a special way, Warnick says. She suggests talking to family members about meaningful ways you can honor the one you’ve lost. This can turn into a new ritual for you.
“For most of the people who are grieving, one of the most important things is that they want to make sure the person who has died is not forgotten,” Warnick says. “Part of that is being intentional and figuring out what it’s going to look like to include them in the holidays. Maybe you’re going to light a candle for them. Or, set a plate at dinner and put some of their favorite foods on that plate. Or, make a toast to them. Maybe you [share] favorite stories of the person.”
Know that you’re not alone.
Loss can feel incredibly heavy. It’s common for people to feel like they’re experiencing it on their own. Warnick says that spending time with others who are also processing can be helpful, just as talking to a therapist or practicing self-care may benefit you, too.
Natalie gets this. She says that since she’s so young, many of her friends haven’t lost a parent themselves. It’s hard for them to relate to her experience. Family, however, does understand. “I’ve found [that] it’s important to be around family. They are the people who will understand the most what I’m going through,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s just nice to go out with them and ignore the holidays and go for drinks or dinner.”
Don’t feel bad when you start to enjoy the holidays again.
Laughter and happiness can feel at odds with processing loss. So, when people start to experience joy again, they can feel a sense of guilt, Warnick says. “It’s important to know that that doesn’t mean you love the person any less or are missing the person any less,” she said. “It’s absolutely OK to still enjoy yourself and have a good time.”
She says learning from the way children experience grief during the holidays can be really eye-opening. They often show how sadness and happiness can coexist. “We can learn from kids by watching the beautiful way they balance joy and sorrow. They’ll have a ‘grief burst,’ but then have this amazing ability to talk about Santa ten minutes later,” she explains.
While the loss is still fresh for Natalie, her dad remains a big part of her life all year—not just at Christmas. “He’s always in our hearts and a part of my family’s conversations,” she says.
*Name has been changed at their request to protect identity.