10 Ways to Cope with Grief and Loss During the Holidays


By Lauren Woolley, PhD | GoodTherapy

Lights, music, and parties. The buzz of the holidays brings excitement to many. However, they can elicit painful memories of those we’ve lost. This time of year can feel particularly lonely if a loved one has recently died or we’ve experienced a divorce or breakup. “Whose house do we celebrate at now?” “What should I do this Christmas Eve since my ex has the kids?” “Should we visit the grave site after we open presents?” Losses during the holiday season can feel particularly upsetting when we’re bombarded with commercials and media images of happy, intact families.

If you’ve faced a loss, it would be natural for you to experience one or more of the following symptoms during the holidays:

Sadness, Crying more than usual

Lack of motivation to attend holiday events

Poor concentration, Wanting to be alone

Difficulty sleeping

Feelings of guilt, Irritability or anger, Anxiety

While nothing can eliminate the pain of loss, the following suggestions may help or provide some comfort:

Take good care of your health. Eating a balanced diet, limiting alcohol use, getting eight hours of sleep, and exercise serve as the foundation for wellness. These activities build our “emotional bank accounts.” We need frequent deposits during the holiday season, particularly when obligations such as going to work, holiday festivities, and caring for others can withdraw from it.

Spend time in nature. Going for a walk at local park, on the beach, or any peaceful outdoor space can calm the body and the mind. Many healing professionals, including dentists and doctors, display nature pictures for their soothing qualities. It’s easy to criticize ourselves when we don’t feel holiday cheer. Offering ourselves a small dose of compassion may decrease our stress.

Practice self-compassion. It’s easy to criticize ourselves when we don’t feel holiday cheer. Offering ourselves a small dose of compassion may decrease our stress. You can practice self-compassion simply by placing your hand on your heart or giving yourself a hug, then silently saying, “This holiday time is difficult for me. It’s painful that someone I care(d) about is not here. I’m going to do the best I can today.”

Create a new tradition. A friend of mine decided to participate in a “Turkey Trot” after her divorce. She was not a runner, but she felt getting in a nice walk with others would be a good start to her first Thanksgiving as a single person.

Connect. Having a meaningful interaction with another person can lift our mood. Simply saying “hello” and making eye contact with a cashier or your neighbor counts. Calling a friend or going to dinner with a loved one can decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness. If you don’t feel like talking to anyone, simply going to a place where there are people may provide comfort (e.g., reading a book at your favorite coffee shop or going to a museum).

Limit social media. Sadly, social media can make us feel down. Many people post only the highlights of their lives, leaving out the hurtful or dark moments. Looking at pictures and posts of others’ holiday festivities may lead to painful comparisons.

Contribute. Giving to others may enhance our mood and sense of purpose. Serving dinner at a homeless shelter, putting together care packages for troops abroad, or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway are just a few ways you can help.

Honor the loved one who died. Rituals can help us process grief. Potential ideas include donating to your deceased loved one’s favorite charity, gathering with those who loved the deceased and sharing favorite memories, or lighting a wish lantern.

Say “no” if you need to. After a loss, we may not feel up to our normal slate of holiday activities. It may be helpful to say no to baking three dozen cookies for the holiday party or hosting at your home. It can be helpful or informative to ask yourself, “Will saying ‘no’ to this help me say ‘yes’ to healing opportunities this holiday?” Prioritize self-care.

Seek help from a support group, spiritual leader, or therapist. Many hospitals, hospice agencies, and bereavement centers offer grief support groups during the holiday season. If you belong to a religious or spiritual community, you may find it helpful to reach out to one of your ministers or leaders. Connecting with a therapist may also be beneficial, particularly if your pain is impacting your day-to-day functioning.

Be gentle with yourself this holiday season and know you deserve to have support during this difficult time.