Navigating Grief and Loss During the Holidays and Staying Connected – Dr. Kimber Del Valle

The holiday season is often depicted as a time of joy, togetherness, and celebration. However, for many individuals, it can be a period of profound sorrow, particularly in the face of significant family losses. The absence of loved ones can weigh heavily during holiday rituals and routines because we miss being able to create new memories with them. Specifics like, the familiar sounds of laughter, a loved one’s unique habits like the way my grandmother moved her lips and made a sound when she was thinking, or even the absence of snores after dinner, can all contribute to a poignant heaviness to the festive atmosphere.

In the company of grief, it’s natural to want to push it aside, to fill the void with activity and distraction. Yet, grief will find you. It’s an inescapable, universal emotion that touches our lives in various forms daily. Grieving losses, both big and small, is a part of our emotional growth. Therefore, confronting grief rather than evading it is a more sustainable and mentally healthy approach in the long run.

So how do we make it through the holidays with our grief? My first suggestion is to acknowledge and talk about your missing loved ones. Share your memories and feelings with safe, empathetic individuals who can understand the messiness of grief. It’s essential to avoid falling into the trap of toxic positivity, where one feels pressured to focus exclusively on positive thoughts and emotions, while ignoring or suppressing the inevitable and often turbulent feelings that accompany grief and loss. In these conversations, embrace the anger, betrayal, abandonment, and sorrow that might emerge, even if the circumstances of the loss cannot be changed.

If you tend to gravitate toward logic and positivity, consider what unprocessed grief you need to address within yourself. Creating “grief containers” requires doing the necessary internal work to process your grief. By embracing that grief is an important presence in the human experience, it can help all of us stop the unusefulness of “toxic positivity.”

My second suggestion for getting through the holidays involves proactive problem-solving, specifically for the holiday day itself or whatever special routines you had that involved the person(s) you’re missing. Ask yourself, “How can I experience the devastating loss I’m feeling without feeling alone?” Humans are wired to connect, to be seen, and to be understood. During times of grief and sorrow, these connections become even more crucial, as loneliness can intensify the emotional weight of grief. The holiday season tends to magnify feelings of isolation, but by actively seeking connections with friends, family, or support groups, you can invite comfort and compassion to alleviate these difficult emotions.

Third, bring your tissues to parties and start conversations with honesty and welcome your grief process into the interactions. Feel less alone or like you’re having to “contain” emotions by saying things like, “I know Ted would’ve loved this party. His puppy chow is missed, I know, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make it without him.”

Fourth, Ban thinking, “I just need to get through this _______ (i.e. party) without a meltdown.” No. No. No. Instead ask yourself, what do I need in order to allow myself to have a meltdown if all the feelings, thoughts, body sensations come up? Surround yourself with the people who can rescue you from conversations that aren’t helpful or drive you home if you need to leave early. Meltdowns take twice as long to recover from when you’re alone (For any science nerds – “twice” isn’t a scientific measure however co-regulation, that is, being with a safe human while “losing it,” is robustly studied in the fields of attachment and Poly Vagal theory as having the ability to decrease the time spent in low moods.)

Finally, when navigating the holiday season while coping with grief, consider these practical steps to foster connections and keep the memory of lost loved ones alive:

  1. Sharing Memories: Encourage friends and family to share their memories of the departed loved ones. This can create a sense of togetherness and keep their spirit alive, reminding everyone of the impact they had on their lives.
  2. Creating Rituals: Establish new holiday rituals or routines that honor the memory of the person who has passed. Lighting a candle, displaying a special photo, or participating in an activity they loved can help keep their spirit alive during the holidays.
  3. Favorite Dishes: Preparing and sharing a favorite dish that the departed person used to make can be a heartwarming and comforting experience. It’s a way to cherish their culinary legacy and a reminder of the warmth and love they brought into your lives.

Navigating grief and loss during the holidays can be challenging, but by seeking connection, creating meaningful rituals, and cherishing memories, it is possible to find solace and even moments of joy during this difficult time. Remember, you do not need to simply “plow through” the holidays or resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Instead, you can create space for others to join you in your journey through grief and stress, offering support, understanding, and connection during this, and any, challenging seasons.

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