4 Tips for Handling Grief During the Holidays

This story originally ran Dec. 22, 2022, and was updated Dec. 4, 2023.

The holidays are happy for many people—a time to enjoy decorations and music, gather with loved ones, see old friends, eat special foods and celebrate family traditions.

When someone is grieving, however, the focus on festivities can magnify the pain, says UNC Health clinical psychologist Justin Yopp, PhD.

“The holidays can be really hard on someone who is going through bereavement,” he says. “The season evokes a lot of memories. There is less daylight, which doesn’t help. And so many movies and TV shows depict this as a time of togetherness and happiness. That’s not where people are in the depths of their grief.”

People grieve not only over the death of a loved one, but also for any loss: a job, a home, a relationship. But because a death is final, bereavement can be particularly painful.

So, what can you do if you are grieving this holiday season?

Be gentle with yourself and others, Dr. Yopp says. Here’s how.

1. Recognize your grief.

Experiencing grief is part of what makes us human. Allow yourself to feel grief and other difficult emotions without self-criticism.

“Grief is normal,” Dr. Yopp says. “We can only compound our grief by feeling bad about grieving.”

If you’ve suffered a devastating loss, it’s OK to feel, think and act differently than you did during past holiday seasons. It’s OK not to be OK.

“For periods of time, marinating in your grief is understandable,” Dr. Yopp says.

It’s also OK to feel happy or laugh. That doesn’t mean you’re not grieving.

2. Think of ways to comfortably observe the holidays.

You don’t feel like decking the halls, but there might be other, more meaningful ways to observe the holidays without pretending that you aren’t in pain. Maybe you want to have a smaller meal with just close family or go on a trip with a friend. Maybe you want to visit your loved one’s final resting place or play a song that the two of you shared. Whatever feels right to you, do it.

And don’t be afraid to try something and see how it feels, Dr. Yopp says. Focus on self-care: “A change of scenery, exercise, eating healthy—all that can really make a difference,” he says.

If you’re not sure what to do with your time over the holidays, reach out to someone who knows you well. “It’s worth talking about your feelings with a friend or family member,” he says. “Tap into the support system you have available. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own.”

3. Find connections if you’re able.

Many people withdraw when they’re grieving, Dr. Yopp says, but isolating too much can be unhealthy and even signal depression.

Seek out people who are understanding and will be gentle about how you’re feeling. This could be a friend, a loved one or members of a support group.

“When you don’t feel like doing anything,” he says, “that may be a signal that it actually is time to get up. If you’re experiencing depression, even if you don’t feel like it, do something—with faith that you’ll be glad you did.”

4. Remember that others may be grieving, too.

If you’ll be around others who are missing the same person—say, you and your siblings are grieving your father—be aware that grief is different for everyone.

Some people want to remember their loved one by sharing memories or special traditions. Others might find that too painful. You don’t all have to remember the person in the same way, Dr. Yopp says, but take care to honor each person’s grief, even if it looks or feels odd to you.

“People are different,” he says. “Their pattern of grieving will be different.”

If you’re experiencing grief and need help, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.