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Grief and Gratitude: Finding Light in the Holiday Darkness

The holidays tend to elicit and exacerbate our grief responses. They may look quite different than what you expect. Loss permeates our day-to-day lives, and yet it is something people tend to run away from. Feelings of devastation and pain, and confronting our suffering is hard work. We wanted to share some ways in which you can attune to your grief responses this holiday season.  

  1. Recognize - grief will likely be heightened around the holidays. 

The holidays can be a tough time. Grief tends to increase as one considers all that comes with the holidays: stress, missing loved ones, spending time with difficult family members, and missing those that cannot be present or are no longer in our lives. Grief responses vary over time. Some responses or reactions may be more manageable one day but not so much the next. ALL of these reactions or responses to loss are a normal part of one’s grief journey.  

  1. Normalize - expect the unexpected. 

Grief is incredibly complex. Western culture pressures people to get back to “normal” after suffering loss, but grief is not something to get over or something that goes away. The ways in which our grief impacts us will vary, and it should. We are all our own people, with different expectations, relationships, experiences, and understandings. Just when we think we have it figured out, grief sneaks up on us.   

  1. Individualize – grief is universal, but our responses are not. Everyone has different needs. 

Recognizing and normalizing that what you are experiencing as grief is half the battle. Then, you must find ways of engaging in your grief that serve you. Some may need to create an exit strategy for when they become overwhelmed by all that is going on. Being around family and friends can be difficult so creating a time boundary or a plan that you can implement to get away may be essential.  

Everyone should practice boundary setting, which can be particularly helpful and necessary during the holidays. To create boundaries that work for you, consider what you need regarding space or time to grieve and ponder what that looks, sounds, and feels like. Those of us who tend to suppress our grief responses because we are around others are not putting ourselves first; and therefore, not honoring our grief process. Additionally, consider the messages you receive from others around your grief and create boundaries so others are not given the power or permission to dictate how you feel or what you do in your grief journey.  

We all need to take moments for ourselves. You may need to remind yourself to breathe, or give yourself grace, to engage in self-care, or lean into those who serve as your support system.  

Many need to practice self-advocacy. Tell others what you need. Family members may struggle with your requests, but remember, only you know what you want and need. If others choose not to respect your boundaries, that is likely their wish or want for things to return to “normal.” However, grief changes us and life is different than the ways we once knew. Honoring and acknowledging your process can be particularly helpful.  


  1. Reconceptualize - allow yourself to create new traditions. 

Holidays are typically full of family traditions; however, some traditions may need to shift or change when we experience loss. I am not saying that you have to let go of your traditions, as many can be incredibly helpful, but it can be hard to maintain what once was. Creating new traditions does not mean that you are leaving loved ones behind, rather you are making space for new memories and ways of interacting with your loved ones and the world around you.  

It may be helpful to honor your loved ones as part of a new tradition. Doing so is a way to remember loved ones and maintain a connection to/with them. Some people may choose to leave a place setting at the table for loved ones who are not present. Others may choose to light a candle or hang an ornament to honor their loved ones. Some may choose to cook favorite dishes or bake family desserts to maintain tradition. Sometimes people find comfort in sharing their favorite stories or memories and others may wish to watch a favorite holiday movie or even recordings of previous years. Maybe you choose to do a few of these things – and that is wonderful. The most important thing is to find ways to honor and acknowledge those who are not with you in ways that serve you.   



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