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The most difficult time of the year: 6 ways to cope with grief at the holidays

Pictures of roaring fires, turkey dinners and presents spark our imagination around the holidays. While these opportunities to get together with those you love are often blanketed in warmth and happiness, the holidays can also trigger feelings of grief for loved ones lost.

Dr. Robert Brownlee, an internal medicine specialist and board certified psychiatrist at Tryon Medical Partners explains that the holiday season can cause feelings of grief to crop up for two main reasons:

  1. The holidays offer a chance to visit with loved ones you might see infrequently throughout the year, and the absence of one family member can bring about feelings of sadness that don’t come up during day-to-day life. The visible absence of a loved one is oftentimes more apparent when everyone gathers, and the holidays serve as a reminder of the role that family member used to play.
  2. Beyond the absence felt by a missing family member, the holidays represent a stressful time in which grief and depression often operate hand-in-hand. While you might be excited to see your family, the holidays can dredge up old feelings. Perhaps an uncle has said hurtful things to you in the past or a sibling has slighted you without reconciling. Stress can exacerbate depression and enhance feelings of grief over those who are missing. Factors such as seasonal depression, shorter days and colder weather can further serve to make these feelings stronger.

So when feelings of grief arise, what can you do to help yourself make it through the holiday season? Dr. Brownlee shares six ways to prepare yourself both ahead of time and on the day of the gathering:

1. Anticipate the things that might be hard, including traditions

Feeling the absence of a loved one at the holidays will likely appear in different forms and it is important to think through how to gently fill the gaps that someone might have left. If your husband passed away and he was traditionally the turkey carver in the family, think about whether there is another family member who might be willing to take that role. If you typically provide the dessert but don’t think that you have the energy, ask a cousin if they can pick up a pie at the store. 

As Dr. Brownlee notes, always remind yourself, “It’s okay to ask for help.” When his father passed, Dr. Brownlee’s family assigned his role of saying the prayer at Thanksgiving to another family member before the holiday, anticipating that grief.

2. Remember, there is power in grieving with loved ones

When a family member is absent from a gathering, it is important to remember that you are likely not the only one grieving. If you feel up to it, take some time to plan ahead and talk with your family before the holiday so that everyone is aware of how to best support each other. These discussions can also help ensure that one family member’s way of grieving doesn’t hurt another family member in the process. 

3. Create a plan to honor the person who is not there

Establishing a plan to honor someone who is being missed can allow you and your loved ones to set aside time to be sad about the person’s absence, while also still having room to celebrate and feel joy about the holiday. Hanging a special ornament on a Christmas tree or baking the person’s favorite food lets you honor and remember that person in a healthy way. 

4. While you might be sad, try not to cancel celebrations altogether

Though you might naturally feel the desire to isolate around the holidays when you are grieving, Dr. Brownlee notes that self-isolation can often cause your grief to become worse rather than better. 

“There’s strength in numbers and there’s healing involved in being with family,” Dr. Brownlee says. “While it might feel sad or painful to gather with family, grieving together can be an opportunity to support and be supported by those we love.” 

While COVID has placed restrictions on how we might be able to gather, Dr. Brownlee notes that it is important to find safe ways to get together, including scheduling your COVID-19 vaccination and booster shot appointments.

5. No matter what, know that there is no wrong way to grieve, so be gentle with yourself

However you choose to grieve during the holidays, there is no wrong way to do it. Take heart in knowing that the number one healer of grief is time. 

“Grief does become easier as time passes,” Dr. Brownlee says.“ While this holiday might feel overwhelming, ten holidays from now will feel a bit easier. Remember to be gentle with yourself.”

6. If you are feeling the weight of grief during the holidays (or at any other time), reach out to your doctor

There is nothing wrong with you if you are struggling heavily during the holidays. The holidays are a good time to reach out to a grief counselor or engage in grief group therapy, Dr. Brownlee says. If you have the time and ability to do so in preparation of the holidays, this can help set a good foundation moving into the season. If reaching out to a therapist feels too overwhelming, Dr. Brownlee suggests that you reach out to your trusted primary care physician to discuss the best next steps for addressing your grief.

You are not alone if you are feeling grief during what is typically a festive time. If you are struggling to cope throughout the holiday season, your primary care physician is the best first call and, in many cases, the only doctor patients need to see for their mental health. Even if your situation includes seeing an additional expert, your primary physician can help lay the groundwork and share recommendations. Whether virtually or in person, schedule an appointment with your Tryon doctor today, where strong relationships result in better health.