The holidays bring a mixed bag of emotions. Some people love the excuse to gather together and give gifts, while others find the forced happiness of the season to be grating and stressful. A lot of folks find themselves somewhere in the middle. But when you’ve lost a loved one—especially recently—the holidays can feel impossible.
When you’ve lost someone close to you, there’s no escape from images of happy families and couples celebrating together. You’re constantly surrounded by Hallmark movies telling you "the real meaning of Christmas is family," or "She got the greatest present of all: love." These incessant messages can make a grieving person feel lonelier than ever. It doesn’t matter if you lost a loved one a month ago or years in the past, the holidays almost always make that grief feel fresh again.
But there are ways to make it easier. We spoke with psychologist and grief specialist Marilyn A. Mendoza, Ph.D., and licensed therapist Bill Prasad for tips on how to get through the season after losing a loved one. With their advice, the holidays might not be easy, but they may not be an unimaginable struggle.
1. Remember to breathe—really—and start a project.
"Just breathe" is usually the worst and most boring advice a person can give, but in this case, it’s extremely helpful. "Mourners literally find themselves holding their breath," Mendoza says. "If you catch yourself doing this, just focus on your breathing, and take some nice, easy, deep breaths." Deep breathing brings more oxygen to the body, which slows your heart rate and lowers blood pressure, making you feel more relaxed. Sure, a deep breath won’t bring you instant happiness, but it can give you a sense of calm during a stressful time.
When breathing isn’t enough, give yourself something to do. Prasada suggests baking, crafts, or DIY projects. "Doing something that requires measurement, timing, and dexterity will help get your mind off the grief. Your brain isn't really built to do eye-to-hand coordination and ruminate over loss at the same time." By keeping busy, you won’t have brain space available to dwell on the past.
Though you can’t always rely on distraction to cope with grief, it’s a good tool during extreme times, like the holidays. Plus, many people bake and decorate during the season, and by joining in, you get to partake in a social activity while taking a break from your grieving thoughts.
2. Make the person you’re grieving a part of your holiday.
Just because your loved one is gone doesn’t mean you need to erase all trace of them during the holidays. "Everyone is already thinking about him or her anyway," Mendoza says. "Being able to talk openly about the loved one takes some of the pressure off everyone, and lets the others know that it’s alright to talk about them."
Mendoza suggests taking time to share memories of the person you’ve lost. You could have everyone write their favorite memory on pieces of paper, then take turns reading those stories aloud. Don’t shy away from humor or happy moments. "Joy and humor are wonderful ways to heal," Mendoza says. "You must understand that it is not a betrayal of your loved one to smile or laugh."
Openly talking about your loved one is a great way to find joy in the holiday and honor their memory. It brings people together and eases your pain.
3. Ask for help when you need it.
Though most of the people in your life want to help, they won’t know exactly what you need. You’ll probably hear, "I’m so sorry" so often that this well-intentioned phrase becomes completely meaningless. But people don’t often know how to handle grief, and even when they have good intentions, they usually aren’t sure how to help. So you just have to ask.
"Tell the people around you what you need," Prasad says. "This can be as simple as some time to oneself or going out for coffee with a friend." Be specific: If you don’t have the energy to cook, ask someone to go to dinner with you. If you just want a hug, ask for one! People usually respond enthusiastically to these specific requests and can give you the help you need.
Also, it’s totally OK to be honest with your friends and simply say, "I need help," even if you don’t know exactly what you need. Mendoza suggests that being open and vulnerable with a close friend can help you heal. You won’t have to shoulder all the pain alone.
And don’t be afraid to talk. It doesn’t even need to be about your loved one—sometimes talking out all your thoughts gives you a sense of relief. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, find a therapist or group therapy session. There are grief support groups around the country that are free, and others charge a minimal fee. You’ll get a safe space to share your feelings, and you’ll instantly have support from people going through the exact same thing.
After losing someone close to you, the holidays may never be the same. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer every winter. With these tips, hopefully this holiday season will be a time to honor your loved one’s memory—and find comfort in the love you still have all around you.
Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons gifs, check out her blog, Half-Assed Crafts.