Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon
The holidays bring their own joys and stresses to our lives, and today we will be talking about how to cope with grief during the end of the year/holiday season. The holiday season can be a time full of joy, caring, and family, but it also can be a time where we are reminded of the loss of a loved one. It’s just that time of year where we all start to reflect on the past year, for good or for bad. This past year of 2021, there has been so much stress and loss. I think the nursing community has experienced a higher level of stress and loss than other professions due to the dynamics of COVID-19 and the stress that this pandemic has brought to all of our lives for almost two years.
There are many things we can do to help ourselves cope through the holiday season, and I want to recognize that this year could bring even more feelings of grief and loss to us. The first thing we can do is to acknowledge that the holiday season brings up many emotions; it can be painful and overwhelming. It does not matter if it is the first holiday season without a specific person, the holidays are a big reminder that the person is no longer here, no matter how many years have passed. Even for people who are divorced, or no longer talk to their families, these are also situations where loss and grief are present. Grief and loss do not just mean someone has passed, it encompasses all experiences/feelings of loss.
One coping skill that I feel is so important is to set realistic expectations for yourself. If you set high expectations, this may feel like another loss, or cause more stress to meet the expectations you set. It is so important to first remind yourself that you don’t have to do anything to make the holiday season special. Think about what feels most important to you, and prioritize your own needs during this reflection time. Prioritize what you love to do. You can write a list of things you really love to do during the holidays, and make sure to prioritize one or two on the top of your list. Assess what feels do-able for you.
A second coping skill is to allow yourself to feel the feelings in the moment, whether it is joy, sadness, anger, or grief, or all emotions at once! There is no right or wrong way to feel. There are so many mixed emotions around the holidays, and when we try to push the ‘wrong’ feelings down (whether the feelings are happiness or sadness) it can cause us to explode or feel bombarded by our emotions. When we simply allow ourselves to experience the feelings in the moment, it can help us process what happened versus ignoring the ups and downs. Just because you are feeling down one day and happy the next does not mean you are doing anything wrong. Experiencing our emotions in the moment is a great way to move through the emotions and have them not stick with us.
How to sit with painful emotions: https://laconciergepsychologist.com/blog/sitting-with-your-painful-emotions/
- Notice how your body responds to emotional pain. By noticing your body’s response, it is easier to accept and process the painful emotions you are feeling.
- Are you clenching your teeth?
- Does your chest feel heavy?
- Are your shoulders tense?
- Do you have the urge to cry?
- Do you want to run away?
- Does your stomach hurt?
- Is your heart beating faster?
- Validate your emotions versus judging them. Keep in mind, this can be VERY uncomfortable. Feeling these emotions versus fighting them can feel like the opposite of what you want to do. Think about it in the way of observing them like they are floating down a river—seeing them, recognizing they are there, but knowing they won’t stay forever—can be really helpful to process through them. It is important to avoid making excuses, pushing the feelings down, or scolding yourself for feeling them.
- Opt for mindfulness and grounding. Stay present in the moment and ground your body with deep breaths. Focus on the present moment, and shift your mind from fixating on WHAT is causing the pain. Mindfulness and grounding will help you feel your emotions, without becoming overwhelmed by the WHAT or WHY. It is a way to stay in control, while also continuing to sit with the painful feeling of the emotion.
Taking care of yourself and your own needs is also really important. Making sure you are paying attention to what your body is telling you, whether that is to spend time with others or needing time alone. During the holidays, there are so many things you could be invited to or think you have to attend. If you are not wanting to go because it will bring you more stress, assess if you are avoiding hard emotions or needing to take some time for yourself.
The holidays, no matter what, are a stressful time. When we think of holidays and grief, it can be extra hard to manage all of the expectations. Give yourself the grace and space this year to acknowledge your feelings and needs.
Here is a video to watch about the coping skills to use during holiday season when also grieving: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWda1idUsWU