How To Manage The Holidays If You Are Grieving The Loss Of A Loved One, According To Experts

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The holidays can be a complicated time of year. While they’re often a season to spend time with friends and family, if you’ve lost a close family member, the holidays can be hard to navigate. Family parties, traditions, and memories can all feel especially significant after loss, but also overwhelmingly sad. Loss means that life as we knew it won't be the same, and old family customs might become painful with the absence of your loved one. Since grief has its ups and downs, it can help to know what to do during the holidays after you’ve lost a close family member.

"There is no question that holidays are typically exceedingly hard for those of us who have lost loved ones," clinical psychologist Deborah Offner, PhD, tells Bustle via email. "The first holiday without a loved one is, needless to say, particularly difficult and painful, but we should not be surprised — nor self-critical — if holidays are also hard years after a loss. While time can heal, sometimes there is no way around missing your loved one all the more intensely at holiday time."

The holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of year if you’re grieving, notes Verywell Health. You might be feeling more accepting of your loss during the rest of the year, but then feel a resurgence of grief during the holidays. This is totally normal, because holidays tend to magnify any loss that you might be dealing with. There’s really nothing like a holiday to remind you of how much you miss someone.

"Accept that you are grieving, and cut yourself some slack. If a large family gathering only makes your loss more poignant — perhaps with not enough positive stuff to balance it — consider skipping it and doing something else," suggests Dr. Offner.

If you’re grieving during the holidays, it’s important to allow for that process — no matter what it looks like, notes Harvard Health. Here are five ways to cope during the holidays if you’ve lost someone close to you.

1. Communicate Your Needs

It's OK to let your family know what your needs are during the holidays, says Harvard Health. If you need to cancel plans, or you change your mind about participating, that's totally valid. If you can only participate partially, but then need to leave, then do that, too. Saying something like, "I'd like to come for dinner on Christmas Eve, but I might have to leave early if I feel sad," can help your family know what to expect.

"It's always reasonable to explain to relatives that the holiday accentuates your loved one's absence, and that you need to take care of yourself by seeking a different context that might ease your grief," Dr. Offner says.

"On the flip side, if being with family is what you feel you most need, splurge on a plane ticket, or invite yourself to the gathering you think would help you most. For example, if you've lost a significant other and really want to be with that person's family, speak up. Sometimes people don't know whether to invite you for fear of making you feel obligated or burdened."

2. Uphold Traditions That Feel Good To You

If you find certain family celebrations comforting during the holidays, then you can use them to honor your loved one each year. You might decide that you'd like to adopt a tradition that your family member used to uphold — like hosting a family brunch on Christmas Day — as a way to keep the tradition going while remembering your loved one.

"Set aside some time to reflect on some of the best memories you have of your loved one, your relationship, your time together," suggests Dr. Offner. "When you are alone in a peaceful space, do whatever makes you feel most connected. Talk to your family member, write a letter, or just meditate. No matter how sad you are, you can give yourself a chance to feel connected, and to honor your loved one's memory."

3. Or, Start Some New Ones

After loss, you might find that you need to release some old traditions to make way for new holiday celebrations. You might decide to start hosting Christmas Eve at your house. Or, maybe you'd rather celebrate with friends, or go out to dinner on New Year's Eve instead of having a big dinner at home. Loss means change, and if you find that the ways that you want to celebrate the holidays aren't the same anymore, that's OK.

4. Find Support

Families are often complicated, and people grieve in different ways sometimes. Make sure to surround yourself with supportive allies as much as possible if you're coping with loss. Anyone who asks you to mask or deny your grief for the sake of their comfort is not helpful to your process: This can make feelings of loneliness and isolation much, much worse. Self-care when you're grieving, and having people around you who are supportive in the ways that you need, is crucial to your mental health and well-being. If you need help, reach out.

5. Opting Out Is OK

If you need to opt out of any traditions that are just too painful right now, then do that. After loss, the holidays can be very challenging, and if your loss is recent, you might need to take a breather from the celebrations for a year or two. You can always revisit how you'd like to observe the holidays down the road, after you've had some time to process your grief.

If you find that the holidays are too much for you to manage, or if you just need some extra self-care, "Set aside some for yourself, on or right around the holiday, to do one or two things alone that bring you pleasure or calm," Dr. Offner says. "Whether it's a long run, a hot bath, or a Netflix marathon, give yourself the space to make it happen."

There's nothing easy about loss, and the holiday season can be very painful if you've lost a close family member. No matter how you decide to participate in the holidays, or not, know that it can take time to fully accept the loss of someone you love. By getting support, taking care of yourself, and giving yourself the space you need in order to cope, you'll find that your grief process will most likely soften with time.