Coping with Holiday Grief

Article by: Alyza Moore, LPC-A

For so many, the holidays are hard. Whether due to existing family dynamics, grief, seasonal depression, or a number of other variables, the holidays are often anything but the warm, glowing, joyful months that Hallmark movies make them out to be. In fact, these months can carry intense feelings of loneliness, sadness, grief, and anger. Whether you are grieving the loss of a loved one that is made all the more apparent when celebrating with family, or dealing with a difficult custody situation as the result of a painful ending to a marriage, or perhaps you are navigating difficult family dynamics and are anxious about setting boundaries – the next couple of months are bound to bring plenty of challenges. 

At Deep Eddy, we are deeply invested in helping you survive the holidays, learn more about yourself in the process, and practice new coping skills learned in therapy. When seeing my clients during this time, I have found it very helpful for us to work collaboratively to come up with a “Holiday Survival Plan”. This survival plan is unique to each client and their situation. For example, the survival guide for my grieving clients might include making new traditions or finding a way to honor their loved one, while the survival plans for my clients struggling with anxiety would likely include practicing boundary-setting and changing their physical states to regulate during high-anxiety moments. 

Regardless of your particular struggle, I’ve found that a few coping strategies prove helpful for a variety of folks and want to share them here:

Accepting and Tolerating the Feelings

A lot of the work that I do at Deep Eddy (and that many of our other therapists do as well) comes from a therapeutic perspective called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” What does that mean? As humans, we are bound to feel uncomfortable things. One of the least pleasurable aspects of my job as a therapist is breaking the news to my clients that there is no way to avoid painful moments. So, my job as a therapist is to help you to build up tolerance and develop coping mechanisms to deal with the discomfort. 

Inherent to tolerance is acceptance. It will ultimately be easier (and perhaps even enriching) to accept that we feel despondent, alone, angry, and/or sad. With this acceptance, we must commit to letting go of control over hard emotions. It might feel tempting to try to control the way you feel, or even how you present how you feel to others, but this is not going to change the fact that you feel despondent, alone, angry, and/or sad. Allow yourself access to the full human experience, and remember that trying to avoid hard feelings does not shorten the pain cycle.

Fact-Checking Thoughts

Maybe you’ve convinced yourself, in the depths of your anger, sadness, anxiety, or grief, that you really are alone. Or maybe you’ve become certain that your current emotion will forever be all-consuming. Perhaps you’re 100% sure that you’re [insert your own version of a thought error, recognizable by words like “all”, “always”, or “never”].

We must act as our own fact-checkers. Have you ever felt a feeling, persistently, forever? I have the privilege of being allowed a window into some of the most difficult experiences of peoples’ lives. With each one of my clients, not a single one has forever and consistently felt angry, anxious, sad, [insert your feeling here]. These feelings pass. This is your holiday mantra.

Using Your “Ideal Self” as a Guide

We all have versions of our ideal selves that live in our heads. You know, the one who goes on dates despite feeling anxious, or the one who sets boundaries flawlessly. These ideal selves are not totally useless, and can actually act as guides when we’re doing hard things. This is because our ideal selves reflect our value systems. When our actions are based on our values, we’re headed in the right direction.

So, how would your ideal self handle hard feelings during the holidays? Perhaps she’d figure out daily practices to support her, like exercising or getting dinner with a friend. If she has a hard time expressing affection, she might find ways to say “I love you and I care about you” to friends and family. Check in with your ideal self and write out some things that she would do to support herself in her grief during the holidays.

Some Parting Words

The holidays are approaching, whether we’d like them to or not. Take extra good care of yourself, and remember: trying to control feelings is not usually helpful. The feelings also pass through and will not last forever! You are never alone, no matter how alone you feel. Lastly, let your ideal self be your guide. If you need help in navigating grief during the holidays, reach out to us!

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