Grief during the holidays: stages, types, and tips for coping

The holiday season is often portrayed as cheerful and full of warmth. But for some, the holidays can be a time of sadness and grief when combined with a loss – the loss of a loved one, a relationship, or even losing one’s identity or dreams.

There are many definitions of grief, but most agree that it presents as an emotion. Shannon McCarthy, Ph.D., a counselor and assistant professor in the UAB School of Education, says she sees it as more than an emotion – it’s a process of different emotions and experiences. Grief is individualized, meaning that its experience varies from person to person.

“Grief can look very different for everyone, even for people who have experienced the same loss,” McCarthy said. “Grief doesn’t necessarily have an endpoint; it is not something you ‘get over’ or ‘finish.’ The relationship with loss often changes for people over time, but for many people, the emotions and experiences of grief can ebb and flow in terms of intensity. It can cycle or recur.”

Although grief is very personal and affects people differently, McCarthy says the traditional model of the five stages of grief is widely discussed and debated. This model is often described and interpreted as seeing everyone progressing from one stage to another until they hit the idea of “acceptance.” According to McCarthy, this model doesn’t always follow a straight path or move at the same pace, because there is not one specific way to grieve.

“The interpretation of this model can sometimes be harmful, as people tend to compare themselves to these stages and feel as though they are stuck or not moving along in the grief process,” McCarthy said. “The traditional stages of grief represent experiences and emotions that people certainly may have through the grieving process, but they also may not experience some of these at all.”

Types of grief

The types of grief can vary from source to source, but McCarthy describes a few types that can be helpful in understanding grief:

  • Anticipatory grief may occur when someone receives a diagnosis and their wellness or health starts to decline.
  • Disenfranchised grief can be caused when someone experiences grief due to a loss but it is not recognized by others.
  • Cumulative grief may develop when multiple losses are experienced in a brief period.
  • Traumatic grief happens mostly when there is a sudden, unexpected loss or a loss due to violence.

Within each type of grief, there can be a wide range of emotions, behaviors, and experiences, McCarthy said.

“I don’t know that it’s as helpful to focus on a specific category or label of grief as it is to focus on an individual’s perception of loss and its impact and one’s unique journey through the grieving process,” McCarthy said. “It is important to note, however, that for some people, having a label or definition for a specific type of grief or loss can sometimes bring comfort and a sense of validation.”

Coping tips

The grieving process can be unique to each person, so it makes sense that grief can function and appear in different ways for people over the holidays. McCarthy says there is not one thing that should or should not be done. Different strategies will work for different people, and that is important to recognize. Some strategies to consider include:

  • Be gentle with yourself. Pay attention to the “shoulds” that you tell yourself or that you perceive from others, such as, “I should attend this event,” “I should keep all of my previous traditions,” or “I should act normal.” Pay attention to what feels right and what your body is telling you rather than what you think you “should” do or what you think is expected of you.
  • Set boundaries. If there are places or people that are upsetting to you or certain factors that trigger you, it is okay to limit or even eliminate your exposure to these if needed, especially early in the grieving process.
  • Try not to isolate, but know your limits. It may not be helpful in the long run to completely isolate yourself, but it may be helpful to give yourself permission to only be around people who bring you comfort or who understand you. You also may find yourself needing a break from social events or greatly limiting the number or types of events you participate in.
  • Communicate with close friends or trusted family members. It is helpful to talk about what you are feeling and experiencing, what you feel comfortable doing, or what does not feel comfortable. It may be that others are feeling the same way, which can be normalizing and validating and can help someone feel less alone. It also could be helpful to prepare others for the fact that you may need to do things differently this year.
  • Carry on with traditions that are comforting. Continuing some old traditions or rituals can be a good way to still have a connection with someone who is gone. Check in with yourself about this and communicate with others when there are traditions or rituals that you want to maintain.
  • Consider trying new traditions or rituals. When there is a loss, it may not be possible to continue some previous traditions. So, trying some new traditions, attending some new events, or traveling somewhere new can provide a welcome change and an opportunity to focus on experiencing something different.
  • Identify coping skills and activities. It is helpful to be intentional about engaging in activities that bring you pleasure. Going for a walk, exercising, journaling, listening to music and volunteering are a few examples.
  • Identify people you can reach out to. Talking about your grief with people you feel comfortable reaching out to can be helpful.
  • Be prepared. Things may look different due to grief, and there may even be a ripple effect of changes. The holidays may not feel the same, there may be traditions or experiences that no longer happen, and people can grieve very differently. So, it can be helpful to understand and accept that things likely will not be the same.

As a friend or loved one to someone grieving, what can you do to help? You probably can’t change the situation causing them grief, but you can help them cope with it by being there for them. Here are a few ways to help:

  • Don’t be afraid to check on them.
  • Ask what they might need or what they feel up for, and express understanding if they need to do things differently during the holidays this year.
  • Listen to them, and also let them know that you are there to listen anytime they may need you.
  • Respect their boundaries.
  • If there are times they want to be alone or decline offers to do something, honor their wishes, but watch for increasing isolation or withdrawal.

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