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How to deal with grief during the holidays

Grief can be difficult enough on its own. We’re not able to anticipate how we’ll feel following a loss or when we’ll feel it. Grief during the holidays, a time when celebrations, memories, and togetherness abound, can be especially challenging. After suffering a loss — whether the death of someone important to us, a breakup, or a major life change — the holidays tend to bring that loss into sharper focus. To cope with holiday grief, we might find ourselves pulling back from festive traditions we once loved, or maybe we feel tempted to participate, but don’t know how to balance celebrating with our grief.

We all experience grief differently, and we all heal differently, too. When we’re grieving during the holidays, we can take special care to be mindful of our feelings and find what’s right for us in each moment.

Mindfulness - How to deal with grief during the holidays
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Key takeaways:

  • The holidays can heighten our feelings of sadness and loneliness

  • Mindfulness can help us find a sense of acceptance when we’re grieving

  • Try 6 meditations for dealing with grief over the holidays


The connection between grief and the holidays

Grieving or not, the holidays can be a stressful time for many of us. In one survey, 62% of participants said they experience a “very or somewhat elevated” stress level during the holidays. When we’re experiencing grief during this time, common feelings surrounding the holidays, like loneliness and social anxiety, can be especially difficult to handle on top of our grief.

Whether we suffered a recent loss or it’s been some time, the holidays may heighten our feelings of sadness surrounding our loss. This experience is known as an “anniversary reaction,” strong emotional and physical reactions related to important dates such as a loved one’s death anniversary and often major holidays. Although these feelings of sadness and loneliness can be intense when we’re grieving during the holidays, meditation can help.


Taking a mindful approach to our own holiday grief

A meditation practice may not come easily when we’re focused on missing loved ones during the holidays, but it can help us cope with those difficult feelings in a better way. Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe, notes that when we’re grieving, we can find solace in meditation: “When we summon the courage to sit with grief, we discover that we are cultivating an environment where thoughts can be heard, where feelings can be felt, and where healing can begin.”

Grief meditation teaches us that in sitting with our mind, we can create a space of acceptance. That space can lead to healing and ultimately to letting go — not of the person or event we’re grieving, but of the tension and unhelpful thoughts that tend to make our grief even worse.

When we quiet the mind, we allow for all sorts of thoughts to arise, including ones that are emotionally painful and unpleasant. Although that’s a natural, healthy, and needed part of the healing process, it’s most helpful to practice meditation at our own pace and with the appropriate support (if that’s what we need). We might choose to close our eyes and breathe deeply in an environment that feels safe, or we might engage in group meditation. Maybe we adjust our daily habit to something more gradual. Or we might pause at any time — whatever needs to happen so our needs can be met in that moment.

If we’re able to make these accommodations to safely practice mindfulness during the holidays without loved ones, awareness of those feelings can help us find that same sense of acceptance. As Andy says, “In some ways, the antidote to loneliness is to be more present. Not caught up in the story of loneliness, but rather resting in the present moment.”

Sitting with how we feel, even if we feel numb as a result of our grief, allows our pain and emotions to become clear, and eventually can be a cathartic release that sets us on a path to healing. Meditation won’t change the way we feel about our loss, but it can change our experience, helping us find peace in a difficult time. Developing this sense of peace during the holidays can be essential in helping us get through the season in one piece. But if feelings of sadness are severe or persist over time, it’s recommended to consult with a healthcare professional.


3 ways to cope with holiday grief

In addition to a meditation practice, these tips can help us approach the holiday season from a place of strength, even when we’re grieving.

  1. Set clear boundaries.

One way to deal with grief during the holidays is to understand our boundaries and how much or how little we want to participate in the season’s celebrations. Traditions can be a source of comfort, but if they’re for the holidays after the death of a loved one, they can be painful. It’s up to us to decide which traditions are worth honoring and which ones are best to skip this year. Well-intentioned friends often believe that company will do you a world of good, but moving forward at your own pace and knowing what’s right for you are what matters. This is why it’s best to set boundaries in our own interests.

Still, it’s important to remember that we can’t avoid the season altogether. Remaining present and aware of our surroundings means acknowledging and accepting that the holidays will still come every year. Knowing our limits can help us get through the season in a better way, including time spent on our own. When that alone time includes a meditation practice, we make the choice to dedicate energy and effort into staying present and centered during the holidays.

  1. Acknowledge grief.

Not everyone experiences grief in the same way, but we do all experience it at some point in our lives. While we may be tempted to suppress our feelings of grief for the good of the holiday spirit, we can’t let that overshadow real pain we may be experiencing. The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that not talking about a loss can lead to isolation and discourage the people in our lives who are there to support us. Asking for whatever kind of support we might need, whether that’s spending quiet time together with someone else or talking about the loss we’ve experienced, can help. Acknowledging grief can mean expressing our feelings, or it can mean reliving memories about the person who is dearly missed. If it’s not us but a friend or family member who is grieving during the holidays, that same approach might help if we find ourselves wondering what to say to someone who is grieving for the holidays. To help friends dealing with grief during the holidays, just talking about it — asking them how they’re doing, talking about the loss they experienced — can be the right words of comfort for loss during the holidays.

  1. Stay connected to thoughts and feelings.

We can’t predict when feelings of grief will hit us, and that means they could catch us off guard while we’re in the company of others. If we’re able to sneak away to be alone for a minute, one simple way to come back to ourselves and bring body and mind together is with a body scan meditation. It’s not about changing anything about our present moment and what we’re feeling, it’s just about noting how we feel and finding a sense of calm acceptance. After we take that time to ground ourselves, we can spend time with others again.


Try 6 meditations for dealing with grief during the holidays

Looking for more meditations for holiday grief? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations on dealing with grief during the holidays, including:

  • Grieving course. Create room to heal while allowing a sense of healthy connection to live on.

  • Honoring Our Experience meditation. Stay present and note the emotions you’re experiencing in moments of tension, uncertainty, and grief.

  • Handling Sadness course. Start seeing your thoughts with a new perspective so you can learn to let them go.

  • Loneliness at the Holidays meditation. Meet any feelings of loneliness during the holidays with self-compassion and kindness.

  • Reframing Loneliness course. Learn to understand what it means to be lonely, the origins of this emotion, and how you can feel more connected to the world around you.

  • Managing Holiday Social Anxiety meditation. Set boundaries and be present throughout the holidays.

Grief is hard — one of the hardest things we’ll ever face in life —and dealing with it over the holidays can be all the more challenging. But there are ways to honor our grief and still find moments of cheer. The more we bring awareness to what we’re experiencing, the closer we’ll get to noting our grief, accepting it, and finding a way to move forward.

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