Surviving Grief During the Holidays

Written by
Ellen Clark, L.C.S.W.

The holiday season brings an onslaught of media messages that say that this is "the happiest, most joyful time of the year." Holiday songs convey this message. Magazine covers extol the fun of decorating, cooking, and family gatherings. Consumers are pursued relentlessly to buy, buy, buy, and get that perfect gift. The holiday bar is set high. So why is it that many people find the holidays stressful, lonely, sad, and depressing?

For many, just trying to pursue that elusive magical holiday experience is exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing. In a society characterized by working parents, time pressures alone can be overwhelming. Trying to make a wonderful holiday for the kids is often translated into buying more gifts. Parents question "did I buy enough," "will the kids be disappointed," and often succumb to media and internal pressure to spend more. As a result, budgets are strained and there often is the January blues when the bills come due.

For others, the holidays can intensify the losses they have experienced in their life. For individuals who have lost a parent, child, or other loved one, the holidays can be extremely painful. A man, whose wife had died, once said that he just wanted to rip December off his calendar and go straight to January. Grieving people face the holidays with dread knowing that their loss will be magnified. They fear being overwhelmed. The holidays are the ultimate denial busters that their loved one is no longer with them.

How can people get through the holidays and avoid some of the pitfalls that make this season sad and stressful for many. First, give yourself permission to reinvent the holidays. Often, people are stuck in holiday traditions that no longer work yet they feel compelled to continue. Evaluate what you really enjoy and what you don't. Have a family meeting and discuss everyone's likes and dislikes, then start negotiating. Be open to delegating responsibility and setting limits on time, money, and effort. The key is to start the process early and get everyone on the same page with changes.

For people who are grieving:

  1. Create rituals that honor your loved one. This might be as simple as lighting candles or sharing favorite stories about the loved one with family members.
  2. Remember the holidays you shared together. Talk about those memories with others.
  3. Get emotional support if you need it. Family and friends are often there for support but don't hesitate to seek professional help if you feel you need it.

Work/Life Connections-EAP at Vanderbilt can be a resource for support and counseling. Call 615-936-1327 for a confidential appointment.