Grief. For those of you who have harbored the intense array of feelings and emotions that come with the loss of a loved one, then you know that grieving during the holidays comes with its own unique set of challenges. Grief may as well be an extra side dish lobbed on your dinner plate next to your usual turkey and mashed potatoes. It serves to weigh everything down.
When you really think about it, this added helping of grief during the holidays is not unusual. Our culture puts excessive pressure on making the holidays “perfect.” And none of us can escape the signs: family holiday cards shared on social media, endless commercials for the latest toy or gadget we need to buy.
Almost everything we lay eyes on—beginning as early as October and lasting through the new year—centers around the themes of joy, happiness, meaning, tradition and memory-making. We see happy children with rosy cheeks, sitting in front of a warm fireplace with myriad presents placed around a pristinely decorated tree. We see couples getting engaged underneath a picturesque snowfall, twinkling lights illuminating their smiling faces. Our minds do not even pause to process that these images aren’t even remotely reflective of what most of us experience during the holiday season.
Regardless, these visions of the holiday season are what many of us tend to compare ourselves and our own experiences to. No matter how much we convince ourselves otherwise, holiday perfection is the standard we strive to attain. Unsurprisingly, these unrealistic expectations, combined with the magnitude of a great loss, is a recipe for a whole lot of misery.
No matter if it is your first holiday without your loved one or your thirtieth, some of the feelings I describe above may be creeping up on you in these coming weeks. Allow me to share some helpful advice that has worked wonders for me, as well as my clients:
Remove the word “should” from your holiday decision-making
During this time, I want to encourage you to have a “no guilt” policy in place. Whatever decisions you make about how you’re going to spend the holidays—whether or not other people agree or disagree—I want you to allow yourself not to feel guilty about what you decided. Do not get caught up in the “what I should be doing” thinking.
Especially when we go into the holidays, let’s just agree in advance that it’s not going to be easy. In fact, entering the holidays thinking that you should feel happy or that you should feel grateful just makes you feel worse when you don’t. Don’t focus on “making yourself feel better” because there is no guarantee that you can. Instead, focus on feeling exactly how you feel.
Have a strategy for handling grief grenades
Named for the sudden, intense feelings of grief they generate, grief grenades are a part of the grief process. I like to say that just as contractions are part of labor, grief grenades are part of grief. When you feel one of these intense moments of grief coming at you, here’s my three-step process to follow.
- Put your hand on your heart and take three deep breaths. Before anything else, you need to ground yourself and reconnect your mind to your body.
- Stop resisting the feeling that is happening. When doing this, realize that it will not come easy. Our primitive brain is not used to saying “yes” to something it deems painful. If saying “yes” to the feeling you’re experiencing is too much for you, start by saying to yourself, “I allow this,” or “I can allow this.” Remember, feelings are supposed to be there, even the ones we don’t always want. When we allow them to happen, they get less intense and are easier to experience.
- Do not get mad at yourself for the grief grenade happening. It does not mean you did anything wrong, or that your grief process is stuck or stalled in any way. During this step of the process, it is most important to love yourself. Be kind to yourself, tell yourself you are doing great and that this is just part of the grief process. There’s no need to take this and turn it into something bigger than it needs to be.
Remember you can't control your kids' experience
If you’re a parent who just lost their spouse, then you don’t need me to tell you that means your kids lost their other parent. That is a horrible thing and each child is going to have their own response. Just know that whatever their response is, it’s fine—and they are entitled to it.
Not only is sadness an acceptable emotion, but so is anger, guilt, frustration, sadness, joy and relief. All of the emotions are acceptable and we want to normalize them for ourselves and for our children.
If one of your primary concerns is that you will somehow make your kids’ grief worse, I’d like to give you permission to put that worry down. No matter how you choose to deal with the day, the loss is still going to be there. Your actions will not make it better or worse.
Secondly, don’t minimize anyone’s feelings—and that includes your own! A lot of parents tend to focus so much on their kids’ grief that they try to minimize their own. But, here’s the thing: pretending you are not upset in front of your kids is not going to take away their pain. Crying in front of your kids doesn’t make them experience the loss any differently, better or worse. In fact, telling yourself that you shouldn't cry in front of your children can really backfire. Rather, we want to send the message to our kids that no matter what their age is, tears are natural and totally acceptable. And, not only is sadness an acceptable emotion, but so is anger, guilt, frustration, sadness, joy and relief. All of the emotions are acceptable and we want to normalize them for ourselves and for our children.
As you embark on this holiday season without the presence of your loved one, keep these cardinal rules in mind: Remove the guilt out of your decision-making, give in to the feelings you are experiencing and, most importantly, give yourself and your kids some love and understanding. Everything you’re feeling is all part of the grief process, and you’re doing just great.
About the Author
Krista St-Germain is a Master Certified Life Coach, grief expert, widow, mom and host of The Widowed Mom Podcast. When her husband was killed by a drunk driver in 2016, Krista’s life was completely and unexpectedly flipped upside down. After therapy helped her, Krista discovered life coaching, post traumatic growth and learned the tools she needed to move forward and create a future she could get excited about. Now she coaches and teaches other widows so they can love life again, too. Krista has been featured online and in print in Medium, Thrive Global, Bustle, Psych Central and Parents Magazine and on select podcasts such as Grief 2 Growth, Profit Boss Radio, The Money Nerds, to name a few.