Grief and the Holidays: Holding Both
Updated: 22 hours ago
by Audra Naumann, LPC, RPT™, PMH-C
[Sensitive content warning: the following article contains a personal account of the experience of a loved one’s death. Please read with care.]
The holidays can be a time of connection, making new memories and feelings of wonder. It can be a season you look forward to all year with special plans, gifts and traditions. The holidays can hold warmth and joy.
If you are grieving, however, the holidays can feel vastly different. In grief, there can be a loss of the holiday wonder and joy, a desire to sleep until the holidays have passed. Grief can come from a variety of reasons: the death of a precious loved one, a life-altering diagnosis, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job or home, children who once filled the house with laughter are far away this year and more.
Grief can feel confusing, lonely and overwhelming. Especially during the holidays, grief can bring an experience of isolation due to the world around you being filled with celebration and cheer, from friends sending smiling faces on a Christmas card to store clerks asking happily, “Anything fun planned for the holidays?”
My own experience with grief began 9 years ago when my beloved step-father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis was a brutal shock to the family as Cody was our rock, an integral source of wisdom and love. The doctor delivered the diagnosis along with the news that Cody was expected to only live another year or two. Cody lived 9 years past his diagnosis.
On his second Christmas after his diagnosis, we took a family trip to Colorado. Making lasting memories was the theme. I felt an internal pressure to hoard up enough joy and experiences together before he passed to last my lifetime which was of course, impossible. I spent many moments in the remaining years of his life trying to “make it enough,” “soaking it up” etc. often denying the deep ache and sadness inside. Eventually though, the feelings would bubble up, begging to be felt.
What I have learned in my own grief experience is that at times, both the joy and precious memory making can exist alongside the agony and exhaustion of grief. Sometimes the two feelings can exist in the same moment. I’m reminded of the gift of December 2016, when Cody stood beside me in a courtroom and asked to be my legally adopted father [I was 26]. Or, Christmas 2017, when he held my infant son during Christmas festivities. Also, the 5 Christmases of giggles with childhood innocence asking about presents and Christmas treats Cody got to share with his grandson. All these were full of a sweet gratitude and love as well as a ticking clock that brought anger at the unfairness, anxiety for the future and a hollow sadness.
Sometimes, the grief is fully painful and that exists too. For me, it was the first Thanksgiving after his diagnosis, when I couldn’t get out of bed for the day, weighed down by shock. There is a space and time for this experience.
All in all, if I can share a learned truth from my messy, painful, depleting and at times, profound in a spiritual way, grief journey….it is, feel it and respond as needed. It is helpful to have a holiday plan, a space to go that feels comforting and people that feel safe but grief is unpredictable. Grief can catch you mid-bite at a lunch with a friend or the moment you wake up after a solid night’s sleep. Have a holiday plan as well as listen to and know your body and your feelings may shift. The two-hour dinner may suddenly feel like years and you choose to give goodbye hugs after appetizers. The children’s nativity play may suddenly feel wrapped in triggers and you choose to send a “best wishes” text instead. Or, the work holiday party you RSVP’d no to, now feels like the right fit and you show up wearing a new pair of shoes.
It is okay to not know what your limits are ahead of time and it is okay to change your mind and advocate for your needs in the moment. It won’t always feel the same. Each holiday while experiencing grief does not mirror the one before or the one after.
My first Christmas without Cody we went back to Colorado and I watched my son play in the snow for the first time. I watched and felt both: the knowledge that Cody is at peace and the tangible loss of his presence in that moment. I’ve worked to make space for both because grief is just an expression of love continuing.
In loving memory of Cody Lee Naumann, who loved us so well.
Holiday Grief Tips:
Make a holiday plan. [adapted from whatsyourgrief.com practical plan]
Who will you be spending the holidays with? Can these people create an emotional safe space for you? If not, what boundaries or changes do you need?
What traditions or rituals do you anticipate to be the hardest? What would you like to keep, skip or edit for this year?
What roles or responsibilities do you feel comfortable carrying? What roles or responsibilities can you share or delegate?
Finalize your plan with loved ones and those you will share the holidays with.
More items to consider regarding what to keep or skip for this holiday season
Sending holiday cards or opening received holiday cards
Include in your plan spaces for rest and recharge as well as ways to honor your grief.
What are some ways to:
Experience connection with others
Experience spiritual unity
Experience your grief
Honor your loved one
Griever's Bill of Rights
You have the right to companionship, solitude and anger.
You have the right to tell the truth.
You have the right to make decisions based on your own needs.
You have the right to tell people what is and isn’t helpful.
You have the right to refuse all unsolicited advice.
You have the right to ask for help.
You have the right to say yes. You have the right to say no.
You have the right to not share personal information.
You have the right to claim your own meaning.
You have the right to sadness.
You have the right to peace of being.
You have the right to make decisions in your own time.
You have the right to honor who or what you have lost.
You have the right to not be “strong” or “inspirational.”
You have the right to feel conflicted.
You have the right to take breaks from feelings and from people.
You have the right to change.
Additional Holiday Grief Resources