How to Handle Grief During the Holidays

Duke bereavement counselor suggests ways to cope when holidays hurt 

Holidays are a difficult time for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Stock photo illustration by BigStockPhoto.
Holidays are a difficult time for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Stock photo illustration by BigStockPhoto.

They sat in a circle, reciting names of their loved ones. Voices cracking, some cried as they remembered those who would no longer be with them to share the holidays.

"Crying is okay," Penny Sanders, a bereavement counselor from Duke HomeCare and Hospice, told the group of two dozen gathered at Teer House. "There's no need to apologize for the tears."

Sanders led the recent class, "Holiday Hurt: Coping with Grief during the Holidays," as part of ongoing class offerings at Teer House through Duke Medicine's Department of Clinical Education and Professional Development. The class provided a place for those grieving to receive support at a time when the world seems intent on feeling merry. 

"When you are grieving, some days are harder than others," Sanders said. "The holidays are like six weeks of those days all strung together."

During the class, which was offered at no charge to the public and Duke community members, Sanders offered strategies for surviving and supporting grief during the holidays.

Don't be afraid to remember. 

Publicly remembering those who have died is an important part of living with grief. Whether lighting a remembrance candle or retelling a favorite story, speaking the person's name is part of the healing process. "If a person cries when you speak of their loved one, you needn't worry that you have made them sad," Sanders said. "They are just expressing the sadness they already have in them." 

Accept that grief has its own timetable. 

The holidays, with their focus on family and ritual, often evoke grief from a fresh loss or one from months or even years ago. "We often give people a rush of support for the first few weeks after a loss, but that's often just the start of the most brutal, raw period of grief," Sanders said. 

Brace yourself for New Year's Eve. 

Many people make plans to get through Christmas and forget to prepare for Dec. 31. "There are a lot of people on New Year's Eve saying, `this is the end of the last year my loved one was alive,' " Sanders said. "It's a major milestone." Planning time during the evening to remember and honor those who have died offers support to those who are grappling with the task of moving forward alone.      

Choose commitments wisely. 

Sanders suggests listing holiday traditions and selecting which ones are meaningful and which ones can be altered or given up, at least temporarily. Friends, family members and colleagues can help by accepting a grieving individual's varying levels of energy graciously. "Being bone tired and unable to concentrate is a huge component of grief," Sanders said. "That can feel deadly during the holiday when life is so busy." 

Give back. 

The holidays are an easy time to reach out to help others. "Finding and responding to people who need your help can give you a feeling of success during a time when it is easy to feel like a failure," Sanders said. Providing gifts for others in need or joining in a service activity with family or friends can be especially powerful when done in memory of a loved one.

Supporting friends and family through the shock of a loss is not easy but accepting grief as part of the holidays can help. 

"During the holidays, grieving families often feel trapped between extremes: either pretend all is well and the same as always, or resign themselves to isolation and hopelessness while everyone else is joyful," Sanders said. "There is middle ground, though, which is to remember and honor the loved ones and the grief their loss has brought as well as the traditions that made the holidays special when they were alive."