How to Survive the Holidays When You’re Grieving

The holiday season can feel like a punishment when you’re grieving. Forced festivity seems like it was created just to make the knots in your stomach even tighter. Seeing other people throwing parties and decorating trees and wearing ugly sweaters on purpose might make you want to crawl under your bed…and stay there until January 2.

So how can you muster up the strength to face the onslaught of good cheer and maybe even find a smile or two during the holidays?

Forgo Tradition. The presence of your person’s absence can be too much to bear. The empty seat at the table where your mother always sat, your feeble attempt at re-creating the salad your sister brought each year, the lopsided football teams in your family’s pre-meal game—all these can accentuate your loss. Instead, shake things up. Move from a seated meal in the dining room to a buffet in the den. Invite a new cast of characters to join your celebration. Get Chinese food or order pizza instead of more traditional fare. Your celebration will likely feel unrecognizable anyway without your person. Make it deliberately different.

Have an Exit Plan. If you’re going to somebody else’s home, figure out ahead of time how to leave if things feel too tough. If you’re comfortable, let your host know that this is a difficult time for you, and that you’re going to play things by ear. Lean on a trusted friend to be your excuse if you need to take off early. And don’t feel guilty if you don’t go at all. Prioritize what you need this year, not what others might expect from you.

Volunteer. Helping somebody else is a great way to connect with others and find meaning during a time when you’re quite likely feeling isolated. Soup kitchens, toy drives, meal delivery—there’s no shortage of opportunities. You might even think of volunteering as a way to honor the person you’re missing.

Talk to Somebody. Acknowledge that this year will likely feel different and confide in a friend, a family member, a therapist, or someone you meet online in your grief group. Talking about your feelings instead of swallowing them helps you integrate your new reality and gives others an opening to support you.

Take Care of Yourself. This is the year to be selfish. What do you want or need? Go on a vacation. Get a massage. Spend the day reading in bed. And when other people ask if there’s anything they can do, say “Yes.” Enlist a friend to do your shopping for you or take your kids to the movies so you can have time to yourself.

Expect the Unexpected. Holidays bring up a lot of emotions under the best of circumstances, which these definitely are not. Give yourself grace to feel whatever you’re feeling. Treat yourself like you would a best friend, and set aside any expectations of what the holidays “need” to be.

Don’t Feel Guilty if You Have a Good Time. If you find that the holidays are just what you need to restore routine or connect with loved ones or even simply to distract yourself, don’t feel guilty. You deserve every bit of joy, even when you’re mourning.

It’s possible for grief and joy to mingle, to sit side by side at your holiday table laughing and crying together.

Written by Jessica Fein for Psychology Today.