Dealing With Grief During the Festive Season
Published on 21st December, 2019 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
It is the festive season and there are glinting lights draped across the hall while the aroma of freshly baked cookies wafts in from the kitchen. All is good and well but a sudden memory of a loved one who has passed away years ago pops into mind and doesn’t go away. Unbeknownst to many, the festive season is a prime time for feelings of grief to creep in as the holidays tend to remind people of families and friends who are no longer around. Dealing with grief triggered by holiday festivities can be especially difficult to cope with (Bendaña, 2017).
Understanding stages of grief
Grieving is a process that occurs after the loss of someone significant (Miller, 2015). There are five stages of grief proposed in the grieving process (LeBlanc, 2016). It usually starts with Denial- blocking the fact that the loved one is no more (e.g. saying “It’s not true” when the news is heard). This is followed by the second stage, Anger, where we experience guilt or seek to attribute blame. The anger may be directed at oneself or others for not doing more to prevent the loss from occurring. Sometimes, the individual even become upset with the deceased for leaving. In the third stage of Bargaining, grieving individuals would usually try to bargain with a higher being or themselves to try and undo the loss. The individual may offer a secret deal with God to be a better person if he was to wake up and find out that the loss is merely a terrible nightmare. Reality starts sinking in in the fourth stage, Depression. While the symptoms are similar to that of clinical depression, such as low mood and poor sleep, this is an appropriate response to a loss.
After going through the four stages, one can finally accept that the loved one is not coming back in the Acceptance stage. Acceptance does not equate to one being ‘fine’ or ‘ok’ with the loss. However, the individual acknowledges the finality of death and seek ways to move forward while understanding that life will go on without the deceased loved one’s companionship.
Although the acceptance stage is usually thought of as the end of the grieving period, it is possible to regress to prior stages even after acceptance occurs (Miller, 2015). The process of grief does not occur sequentially from denial to acceptance. The duration of that one stays stuck in a stage may also vary from a few minutes to many years. Memories and certain situations, such as holidays or birthdays, may trigger an earlier stage of grief and re-spark the feelings of loss, guilt, or gloominess all over again. This may happen even years after one believes that he has accepted the death of a loved one.
Dealing with grief during the holidays
Holidays are usually the time for family gatherings and catching up with friends. The feeling of missing a loved one might become more pronounced when contrasted with all the on-going festivities. Moreover, the festive season may be tied to specific traditions and memories spent with the loved one. For example, most of us will probably have a dish to we look forward to which is prepared by someone we love during festivities. Eating the same dish in subsequent years after the demise of that loved one will likely trigger fond memories when the loved one was alive. Thus, grief inducing thoughts might occur during the festive season such as, “Dad and I used to put up the Christmas lights together and I miss those times with him” or “My grandmother used to cook those dishes in the past, but I took her for granted then”.
The intensification of emotions is not limited to the festive holidays. Special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries were also found to heighten psychological distress amongst bereaved individuals (Carr, Sonnega, Nesse & House, 2013).
Steps you can take to cope with the loss of a loved one this holiday
It is no easy task to cope with loss during the holiday period. Below are some tips to help you cope better with loss, both recent and distant, during this festive season:
1. Acknowledge that the holidays might re-elicit feelings of grief
Holidays can be a rather difficult time to acknowledge feelings of grief as one might feel an obligation to be happy and not be a ‘Debbie Downer’. It is important to recognise that it is rather common during the festive season to suddenly feel grief for a loved one who has passed on. Acknowledging that you might miss your deceased loved one during the holidays helps soften the guilt of not being able to fully enjoy the festivities (Bendaña, 2017).
Do know that feeling sad and longing for the presence of a loved one is not a marker of one’s weakness. The festive seasons will inevitably remind us of the good times and love shared with that special someone. Now that they are no longer by our side, its no wonder that something, or rather someone, feels missing from all the festivities. Thus, feeling emotionally affected by grief during the holiday is not unusual and it is only human to miss your loved one is no longer with you in the festivities.
2. Donate to or help out with a charitable cause
Helping out with a charitable cause is not only meaningful but it helps to associate positivity with the loved one’s memory. Doing so can be a celebration of their kindness and character when they were alive and serves to further their legacy. This tip is especially applicable if your loved one championed a particular cause in their lifetime. Perhaps, if they adored animals when they were alive, you could help out in the animal shelter this festive season!
3. Establish new traditions
This step is about adding on to the existing happy memories of family and friends. As mentioned, holiday traditions can trigger one to remember and miss the good times spent with a deceased loved one. You may tweak or add to existing traditions so the memory of the loved one can be kept intact while new memories associated with the holiday can be made with those who are currently by your side. For example, if you would always go to see Santa at the mall during Christmas with your mother (who is now deceased), you could still do so together with other family members and friends and have tea together afterwards.
4. Spiritual coping
This point applies to those who believe in a higher power or religion. Leaning on your beliefs in times of grief can be helpful. A study by Hassan and Mehta (2010) on bereaved youths in Singapore following the death of a parent found that prayers and building a closer relationship to God enhances their ability to manage the pain of losing a loved one. Especially for religious holidays, turning to one’s religious beliefs and practices can help you to feel more at peace.
How can you help/approach someone who is grieving during the festive season
Know somebody who is struggling with grief? These are some ways you can support them this holiday period.
1. Offer to help out with festive chores
When grief unexpectedly sets in during the holidays, it can make seemingly simple tasks difficult to complete. One might be too distracted or overwhelmed by their emotions to carry out certain festive chores, such as planning a party or going gift shopping. Offering to help out with or accompanying them while they run these errands can help ease a little of their stress.
2. Check up on them after the holidays
Those who are struck by grief during the festive season might not want to open up about their emotions right then and there. This might be due to being unable to find time amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season or it might be because they do not want to ruin the ‘mood’ of the celebration. The post-holiday period might be a good time to check whether they are coping well. With the festivities simmering down, they might be more ready to share and thus, require a listening ear.
3. Invite the person to join you during the festive season
Remembering their deceased loved ones during the festive season can make one feel rather lonely. Including them in your festive activities not only helps to ease their loneliness but also reminds them that they are still loved and cared for.
Recently, when beloved Hollywood actor Keanu Reeves was asked what he thinks comes after death, he answered that “the ones who love us, will miss us”. Death is shrouded in mystery but what’s for certain is that we will definitely miss those close to our hearts who have passed on. Grieving is a natural part of life and the sadness associated with the loss of a loved one does not ever go away entirely. It is essential to recognise that these underlying longing for our loved ones who have passed on can easily resurface during the festive season. Only by first acknowledging our vulnerabilities can we be better equipped to cope with grief that might unexpectedly climb down our chimneys this holiday season.
This article discusses the experience of grief following the death of a loved one, specifically during the festive holidays. However, grief may occur in many other situations, such as after the breakup of romantic relationship or having your child leaving home for overseas study. You may also find out more about anticipatory grief here.
Bendaña, A. (2017). Coping with grief during the holidays. Nursing, 47(11), 54–56. doi: 10.1097/01.nurse.0000525991.36485.1b
Carr, D., Sonnega, J., Nesse, R. M., & House, J. S. (2013). Do Special Occasions Trigger Psychological Distress Among Older Bereaved Spouses? An Empirical Assessment of Clinical Wisdom. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 69B(1), 113–122. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbt061
Hassan, M., & Mehta, K. (2010). Grief experience of bereaved Malay/Muslim youths in Singapore: the spiritual dimension. International Journal of Childrens Spirituality, 15(1), 45–57. doi: 10.1080/13644360903565565
Leblanc, S. S. (2016). Goodbye, Daddy: An Autoethnographic Journey Through the Grief and Mourning Process. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 22(2), 110–119.
Miller, E. T. (2015). The Grieving Process: A Necessary Step Toward Healing. Rehabilitation Nursing, 40(4), 207–208. doi: 10.1002/rnj.220
Article written with Charmaine Leong. Charmaine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Charmaine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues in Singapore. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.