7 Tips for Handling Grief During the Holidays

There’s practically no way to escape the holidays—the decorations, music, parties, cards and ads are everywhere.

Often, this is a happy time for gathering with loved ones, seeing old friends, eating special foods and celebrating religious beliefs and family traditions.

But when someone is grieving, all the focus on joy and celebration 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 so final and can be so earth-shattering, bereavement can be particularly painful.

So, what can you do if you are grieving this holiday season or to care for someone who is?

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

If You Are Grieving:

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 understandable,” Dr. Yopp says. “It’s normal. 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 rockin’ around the Christmas tree, but there might be other, more meaningful ways you can observe the holidays without pretending that you aren’t in pain. Maybe you want a smaller holiday meal with just close family or to go on a trip with a friend. Maybe you want to visit your loved one’s final resting place or play a song they always loved. 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 yourself too much may not be healthy and could 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 people in a support group.

“When you don’t feel like doing anything,” he says, “that may be a signal that it actually is time get up and do something. If you’re experiencing depression, even if you don’t feel like it, put the cart before the horse and 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 all 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 may find that kind of sharing 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 Someone You Care About Is Grieving:

1. Don’t ignore the pain or minimize what has happened.

If someone in your life is experiencing loss, don’t act like nothing happened or hope the person can forget about their pain.

“It’s natural for us to want to take away the pain when people we care about are grieving,” Dr. Yopp says, “but minimizing the pain won’t help. Appreciate that this is a hard time for them.”

Take cues from the person who is grieving, he says. Some people may want to talk about their memories. Others may find talking about their loved one too painful. You can say, “I’m sorry this is such a hard time. I’m here for you if you want to talk about it” and let them decide.

Fresh or especially severe grief might make it too hard for someone to socialize, “but if you notice that they don’t want to be around family or attend holiday events, that’s something to pay attention to,” Dr. Yopp says.

The grief may have become depression, and isolation could make it worse. If someone is grieving and isolating from loved ones, check in on them and express your love and support.

An important note about grieving children: Sometimes adults think that children don’t want to talk about their loved one. Don’t make that assumption. Just as with adults, let the child take the lead, Dr. Yopp says.

“You might start a conversation by saying something like, ‘This holiday will be different because not everyone will be there,’” he says. “Avoid not talking about it. If the child is not talking about their feelings, don’t assume they are OK. That may not be the case.”

2. Presence is more important than presents—or saying the “right” thing.

There’s nothing you can say or do to ease someone’s grief, but your presence can give them a sense of being loved and cared for. Resist the urge to try to “fix” their pain or talk about how grief has affected you. Focus on listening.

“What people need is not advice about what they should do or stories about when you lost someone,” Dr. Yopp says. “Let them take the lead. And if you end up just sitting there, that may be the exact right message. You’re showing them that you’re there for them.”

Sometimes, just being there doesn’t feel like you’re doing enough—but it is enough, Dr. Yopp says. And “being there” can mean lots of things: sitting with the person, showing up with a meal, attending the funeral or sending a note.

“There’s that old adage, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something,’” he says. “This is the inverse: ‘Don’t do anything, just sit there.’ People who are grieving aren’t looking for someone to make it OK. It just helps to have someone there.”

3. Don’t make them figure out what you can do for them.

People often say this well-meaning phrase to grievers: Please let me know if I can do anything for you.

This isn’t helpful, Dr. Yopp says, because “people often find it hard to ask for favors.”

If you know the grieving person well, you might offer specific help such as grocery shopping or picking up their kids from school. If you are close and it feels appropriate, you can encourage them to join in holiday celebrations with family and friends.

“If you know them really well, you can be a bull in the china shop,” Dr. Yopp says. “Tell them you are taking them to the family dinner or holiday concert. That can work with a lot of folks.”

But not all, of course. Don’t force them, he says, and don’t make them feel bad about grieving.

If you’re experiencing grief and need help, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.