Here we are again - the time of year when the weather gets cold, festive lights are hung, families come together to eat and celebrate special traditions, and we prepare for another year’s end. For many, this time of year is a special one that fills us with joy, excitement, and a desire to show others our love for them. But for others, the anticipation of grief during the holiday season, throws a wrench in the delight and enthusiasm of the holidays. It's common for grief - those uncomfortable feelings of sadness, hopelessness, longing, anger, fear - to pop up during inopportune moments in our days and nights while we are trying to celebrate what this season means to us. Most of us can struggle to stay in the moment, and all of us want the discomfort to stop ASAP.
How can we best understand grief, and what can we do when we feel grief during the holiday season?
Imagine a ball in a box - maybe a basketball inside of one of the many Amazon boxes sitting in your garage. Picture the ball barely fitting inside the box - it sits snug against the walls of the box, and there is very little, if any, room for the ball to move.
The ball represents grief, and ALL the yucky feelings that come with it - shock, disbelief, guilt, numbness, denial, and all their uncomfortable friends. The box represents your own personal capacity or tolerance to manage emotions, allowing you to react appropriately and effectively.
When something happens to initially cause grief, is when the discomfort is at its worst (which, at first, is almost consistently) - let’s consider that those moments are caused when the ball hits one of the walls of the box. These moments are called grief wounds. Days when you are more tearful, extra prickly, or need more compassion from yourself and others are days you are experiencing grief wounds.
Will the grief ever go away?
As time goes on, though it never feels fast enough, you will imagine that the ball (grief) doesn’t shrink - grief doesn’t go away. Rather, the box (your tolerance) grows around the grief; the tears don’t come as often, you find yourself able to smile more when thinking about the lost loved one, and you’ll feel more like yourself. The timing on this varies, of course, and connection to your natural supports and access to resources like therapy, medication management (when appropriate), and increased care of your body and spirit helps the box grow more quickly.
With more room in the box (more tolerance around grief), the ball has room to roll around. However, that doesn’t mean the ball never hits the walls of the box. Grief still hits us, despite our increased capacity.
There might be days, weeks, months, or even years between those painful moments when the grief ball hits the walls of your tolerance box. You might start crying when you hear a song, or feel angry that someone is unable to celebrate a special occasion with you. Perhaps these moments are fleeting, or they stick around for a bit. Eventually, that grief ball will keep rolling, and it will roll away from the wall, offering you relief from the painful emotions grief causes.
During the holidays, the ball (grief) might be more active in rolling around and hitting against those walls more frequently. Families reunite, special traditions are repeated year after year, memories of time gone by are recalled. It’s common for grief wounds to resurface and disrupt what you’re doing.
Six Ways to Manage your Grief during the Holiday Season
Acknowledge the discomfort you’re experiencing, and put a name to it - grief, sadness, hurt. Notice and name as many emotions as you can (“name it to tame it”)
Accept that grief is like the ball in the box - sometimes, it’s going to roll into the wall and hurt. It doesn’t feel good, but it is common and part of the overall grieving process to hurt.
Recall what some things were that helped you get to this point - what helped you with your grief before? What were some things you were able to do to feel better? What did others do that was helpful?
Seek out your natural support system, like family or friends. Chances are you are not alone in your grief, and having someone who understands what you’re going through can feel less isolating.
Consider what your body and spirit may need in those moments. Perhaps a walk outside, a glass of water or hot tea, some time to rest and recharge away from responsibilities, or time to pray or meditate.
In those painful moments with a grief wound, practice grounding strategies to help keep you mindful of the space you are in.
Seeking Professional Help
If you feel that you need extra support during the holidays, Orenda Counseling has therapists available to help you understand and manage your own unique grief experience. If you need to speak with someone and are in crisis, call 9-8-8 to be connected with a trained crisis specialist.
Written by Laura Oliver, LMHC