15 Women On How They Cope With Grief Around The Holidays
Although the holidays are an exciting and relaxing time for many people, others don’t look forward to them as much. If you’re coping with grief around the holidays, it may not be your favorite time of year. After experiencing such a big loss, whether it’s the death of a family member, it’s hard to get into a festive mood. In fact, you may want to skip the holidays altogether.
Of course, everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to grief. And, no matter how many times people may tell you to cheer up or get out of the house, only you know what’s best for you. It also helps to connect with others who know what you’re going through. Whether you talk to a grief therapist, join a grief support group, or talk to a friend or relative who has been in a similar position, different people have different coping mechanisms. Or, you can use your phone.
The Goodgrief app was created after two women, Kim Libertini and Robynne Boyd, started texting each other after both were experiencing losses — Libertini’s partner passing away and Boyd’s mother dying, as well as her marriage ending. The women have never met in person, but began texting while 1,000 miles apart. And if you need another person to talk to who gets what you’re going through, the app will put you in touch with someone else who’s grieving, too.
“Holidays scream loss for me, and it’s easy to fall into the dark depths of depression during this time of year,” Libertini tells Bustle. “It’s deeply emotional and the loneliness can be extremely painful.” She says that, over the years, she’s learned what things work best for her as she navigates loss during the holidays.
Below, Libertini and other women share how they cope with grief around the holidays.
1. Kim, 43
“I got the call that my grandmother had died as I was sitting down to Thankgiving Dinner one year. A year later, my dad passed away a few days before the same holiday. A divorced mother of two, with my mom also gone, no family left and my new life partner who died in 2015, for the past 10 years, holidays have been a struggle, to say the least. Some things that help me cope include: 1) Sometimes, being submerged in everything ‘holiday’ is just too much, so I try to step away and escape by myself and read a book. 2) I schedule pampering with a mani/pedi, massage, or a new haircut. Self-care is so important to elevate mood. If I look better, I feel better. 3) I book a last-minute travel deal to the Dominican Republic or a city in Europe that’s on my bucket list. A little sunshine or busy travel helps keep my spirits up, helps me to step away from the loneliness of home, and gives me something to focus my energy on.”
2. Nikki, 30
“My sister (my only sibling) died almost six years ago (she was 26 and I was 24), so our holidays are spent with my parents and grandmother and her daughter, my niece, trying to survive through it. My pop pop also died, so while less impactful than my sister, that still plays a role, as well. The holidays have gotten easier since my sister died, but they’re never the way they used to be. We keep the same holiday traditions we always had, so it still partially feels the same, but we added a few new traditions since she died, too. One new tradition my niece and I started is to buy a bunch of gift cards to Target and Barnes & Noble and hide them inside the store, so while people are shopping for gifts, they find a gift card, and we sign it in honor of my sister. Giving back to our community through random acts of kindness definitely cheers us up, and makes us feel hopeful during a time when it’s easy to lose hope.”
3. Heidi, 44
“My dad died suddenly two year ago, right before the holidays, so the holidays have been a challenge for me the last couple of years. I seem to deal with my grief better when it’s only my husband and children celebrating together, as extended family has been a reminder of who is missing and that, for the rest of my life, I’ll never get to spend another holiday with my dad. I try to sit with the hard feelings when they come up, talk about them with my husband or best friend (who is also a therapist, like me), and also try to schedule in daily self-care, which includes running with my dog, a quiet mediation, journaling, and reading.”
4. Robynne, 41
“Grief can be incredibly lonely: My mother died from cancer and my marriage ended. And, approaching the holidays can be an incredibly difficult and stressful time for anyone who has lost people they love. The holiday season tends to exacerbate these feelings because it’s a time when you’re expected to be filled with joy while surrounded by family.
Things that help me to cope are: going to yoga a couple times a week; taking long walks while blasting emotional pop music; trying to engage with the holidays and people on my own terms (meaning, I attempt to forget how its ‘supposed to be and look,’ and instead, try to do what would ‘feel right’; scheduling holiday celebrations, but allowing for large buffers of downtime; and texting or calling friends who get grief, so I can get my raw emotions out with someone who’s safe and understanding.”
5. Lisa, 38
“I lost both of my parents at once from a fluke accident. The first few Christmases without them were unbearably difficult. Now, however, my boyfriend’s family is my new family, and they could not be more loving. They’re the perfect support system and understand if I need some time for myself when we’re celebrating big occasions or holidays that I wish my parents were around for.”
6. Rachel, 28
“After losing my both of my parents to brain cancer in the last two years (when I was 26 and 28 years old), I started an Instagram account chronicling quotes that have resonated with me, reflections on my day-to-day with grief, and sharing professional resources I’ve found to be really wonderful. I’m just trying to provide content for others in this terrible club so we feel less alone, and to provide resources to the friends and extended family who want to help, but really just don’t know where to start.
Some coping strategies I use are: 1) Reflect so I don’t react: I carve out some time BEFORE the holiday to reflect on what stressors might occur over the holiday, how I would deal with them in an ideal world, and how I’ll feel if/when they happen. 2) Use the buddy system: If I’m going to see family or friends, I always make sure I have someone I can count on for emotional and even physical support. 3) Get away: A lot of experts will tell you to create your own traditions around the holidays; some years, tackling hosting, creating, and needing to be detail-oriented just won’t work with the steady drumbeat of exhaustion that comes with grief. So I’ve planned trips out of the country perfectly timed to holidays like Father’s Day and Thanksgiving — exploring somewhere new can be grounding in its ability to remind me of how big the world really is.”
7. Phoebe, 65
“I have struggled with grief during holidays because I don’t have a close relationship with my nuclear family — instead, my friends have become my family. Six months ago, I found my son who I’d placed for adoption 45 years ago. I am facing grief for the loss of years without my son and am now growing our relationship. To cope, I stay focused in the gratitude for what I have and think of the future — to enjoy life to the fullest to achieve my dreams. I trust God and stay grounded in my faith.”
8. Susan, 26
“I became an orphan at the age of 25. I lost my mother at the age of 17 due to what we believe to be Early-onset Alzheimer’s. She was a survivor of breast cancer when I was young also. She was an amazing women, who was sick most of my life. My father passed away last year due to prostate cancer. My father was, and continues to be, my hero; he was my best friend and biggest supporter.
Christmas was the biggest holiday for us. We went ALL OUT: Candy Canes lined the driveway, lit-up garland wrapped around every tree and the porch, trees in the window, and nutcrackers everywhere (my dad collected nutcrackers). I find joy in honoring and continuing traditions. Now I, decorate my small apartment with as many nutcrackers and inherited Christmas decorations as I can fit, without over doing it (maybe). I will sit in my living room with the Christmas tree lit, holiday music playing, and reminisce on the memories of my parents and me during the holidays.
I am a practicing family therapist and have learned to cope with my grief during the holidays. My biggest coping strategy is my support system. By that, I mean I have built myself a family of sorts: A group of friends and families that take me in and support me year-round, but especially during the holidays. Having a support system who can shoulder you during the moments and days of grief in the holiday season is vital for me.”
9. Linda, 44
“I am a physician, married, and have two children. I lost my mother when I was 16 and my father when I was 25. I currently live in the area where my husband grew up because we wanted the kids to grow up around some grandparents. However, I am always feel like I’m ‘hanging in the wind.’ This is especially true during holidays where I keenly feel I don’t have ‘my people.’ My parents never met my children and they did not live long enough to see me become a physician. As I see friends and family going from house to house for dinners and celebrations, the holidays are always a reminder of a huge part of my life that will be forever missing.”
10. Alex, 34
“The holidays (any of them, really) are some of the hardest times for me. I grew up in foster care and did not celebrate holidays on a regular basis. It’s a pretty lonely time for me. The grief I experience is one where my nuclear family is ripped apart because of issues within the home. When Mother’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Father’s Day roll around, I am reminded of relationships I don’t have with family.
Eventually, I started dating an amazing man and would go to his family’s home to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. His mother became my mother; she coordinated holiday gatherings and even had a gift exchange organized and everyone was involved. His mother has since passed at an early age due to cancer. The holidays aren’t ever the same anymore and we have shifted to going to his family’s only once during the holidays. I am glad we have one another and I see his mother in him. I am glad to have someone supportive; his outlook on life has changed my perspective of what it means to be thankful — thankful for a roof over my head, thankful to not be hungry, and thankful for being ALIVE. I am thankful every day because of his kindness and love.”
11. Justine, 34
“I lost my father when I was 16, my mother when I was 23, and other loved ones in between; the holidays have been a difficult time for a while now, yet also a powerful check-in point where I am able to see how my relationship to these losses has changed over time. I am a big believer in discussing grief, which we are so squeamish about in our society. As far as coping strategies, I’d suggest: 1) Find time to be alone. The holidays can be overwhelming for even the most supercharged extrovert; go for a walk, step outside, leave a party early, take bathroom breaks throughout the night — whatever helps you recharge your batteries, do it. 2) It’s OK to feel happy. Sometimes in the wake of a loss, we can feel uncomfortable, guilty, and confused when we feel ‘normal,’ or even happy, playful, and at ease. You are allowed to feel good. 3) Advocate for traditions that are important to you. I know for me, the loss of my parents meant the loss of traditions that I looked forward to every year; as an only child, there was nobody else who remembered the little quirks of our household celebrations, and nobody with whom to recreate them. It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I felt empowered to advocate for the kind of festivities that made me happy, and that I wanted her to experience — both as a connection to her grandparents whom she never met, but also as a way of my sharing something close to my heart with her. 4) Remember that this isn’t a forever place. If this holiday is brutal — if you are sad, angry, lonely, despondent — know that it won’t always feel this way; you really, truly, won’t. You are not broken, and this is not a forever place.”
12. Heather, 48
“My childhood holidays were grand affairs, with way too much food, a tree surrounded with gifts, and small ranch houses packed with family. These days, the holidays are much more scaled back, and I can’t help but notice what is missing — my maternal grandmother’s cooking, my paternal grandmother’s shopping, my stepfather claiming that Thanksgiving is his birthday (even though the date changes every year). And while there’s a lot missing, and part of me yearns for those earlier days, what has changed and help me cope is my ability to openly discuss and remember the people who are missing, while at the same time making the holidays my own.
When the family was together, we engaged in mutual pretense; we all knew we were grieving, but nobody was going to acknowledge it out loud. This takes a lot of energy, and in my experience can make the holidays seem a little strange. Now, I usually have the holidays with just my husband, or with my mother and her husband. This small group of people have no problem sharing memories of the people we have loved and lost on the physical plane, but who we still hold in our heart. In addition to using my normal coping skills, such as meditation, writing, and walking, speaking my truth about my grief is my primary coping skill. Finding ways to remember them, rather than suppress the pain, actually winds up creating more balance, and allowing space for laughter and joy even in the midst of grief.”
13. Jane, 30s
“When the holidays come a-knocking, it is normal for my mind to wander to my family who I love. ‘Think of loved ones,’ people say over and over. OK, I hear ya. But my loved ones are far away from me. They’re in Chicago or Florida or Minnesota … then there are the ones that are even further ... in Heaven or whatever other dimension that one can label.
I think of Grandma Becky, Grandpa Mike, Aunt Jennie … I think of my sister’s best friend, Erica, who died. And well, it sucks at first. Then I look around at their photos and say hi. I look for an item of theirs, like my grandma’s purse or her ring, and I say to the object, ‘OK, Grandma, where are we going to go? Let’s go to a holiday parade in Venice. You’ll have fun.’ Then I take the ring and smile. I know she is with me.”
14. Lee, 90
“Gratitude for anything you can think of.”
15. Mary, 59
“Facing holidays after the death of my husband in 2012 was bad enough, but the next year, we were facing a holiday without a beautiful little child we all loved.
Christmas without grandson Jacob was unimaginable, until his younger sibling came up with the idea of giving terrible gifts that year when he spotted a hideous rubber baby at a thrift store and asked if they could give it to their uncle Dan. When my daughter asked if I wanted to participate in the ‘most awful gift-giving scheme,’ it was the first time I saw her smile after her son died, so of course I said yes. There were more than a few giggles and laughs when we unwrapped our awful gifts. I got a misshapen sheep candle that I treasured because of the memory of laughing and I’d found nut-head dolls from Appalachia at a thrift store for less than a dollar, a wooden-headed puppet, and a monkey bank carved out of a coconut shell.
As a grief counselor, I tell people to do whatever it takes to get through those first holidays. If it means doing everything the same, or everything differently, find what works for you. I had to do things differently, although I know a widower who hired someone to do everything his wife had done that first year.”
As you can see, everyone has different — yet some similar — ways of coping with grief, particularly around the holidays. Sometimes, it may take some trial and error, but hopefully you’ll find coping mechanisms that work best for you.