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We all know someone, maybe even you, who has recently lost a loved one. In the immediate aftermath of the death, we demonstrate our empathy for the deceased’s survivors in various ways. We extend kind words of support and love; we send flowers; we attend the funeral or celebration of life. But then, after a matter of weeks, we expect, and broader society expects survivors to begin the process of “moving on.” But the survivors’ emotions can speak for themselves: Losing a loved one is incredibly painful and often debilitating. There are no answers; recovery follows its own schedule.

As summer winds down and we approach the fall months and the lurking, ubiquitous holiday season, survivors of a recent death can begin feeling uniquely sad and empty. Psychologists suggest several reasons why the first holiday season without a loved one weighs so heavily on survivors, including, for instance, the Social Comparison Theory. But without diving too deeply into the theoretical, consider the following factors that may begin walloping survivors as the first holiday season following a loss approaches:

The Emotional Impact: Because holidays are associated with joy, togetherness, celebration, and a time of expected happiness, the first Christmas without a loved one can intensify your feelings of grief, loneliness, and sadness.

Traditions and Memories: Because holidays are wrapped in your traditions and shared memories, there is pressure to maintain them without the person integral to them. That can be painful and evoke strong emotions.

Expectations and Pressure: Even after a loss, societal and family expectations can exist for you to participate in holiday festivities and maintain a sense of normalcy. This pressure to appear cheerful can be overwhelming.

Reminders of Loss: The holidays often involve rituals and gatherings that serve as stark reminders of the absence of your loved one, from empty chairs at the dinner table to unopened presents.

Social Isolation: Grief can override logic. While you may know better, you may have the impulse to withdraw from social activities to isolate yourself to avoid facing the emotional challenges of being around others during the holidays.

Decision-Making: Making decisions about how you will navigate the holidays, whether to continue traditions, modify them, or skip them entirely, is often mentally exhausting.

Comparisons: Seeing others enjoying the holiday season with their families and loved ones may lead to feelings of envy, isolation, and unfairness.

Unexpected Triggers: During the holidays, music, decorations, and certain foods can serve as unexpected triggers, evoking powerful memories and painful emotions.

Lack of Closure: You may still be grappling with the shock and lack of closure, making engaging in holiday traditions or festivities difficult.

Mixed Emotions: If you’re experiencing intense grief during the holidays, the result can lead to mixed emotions. You might feel moments of joy or nostalgia amidst the grief, which can be profoundly confusing and emotionally exhausting.

It is essential to remember that your grief journey is unique and that, as a survivor of a recent loss, you’re going through a period of vulnerability. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to grieving, the following strategies may be helpful:

  1. Acknowledge Your Feelings: It’s normal to feel a chaotic mix of emotions, including sadness, anger, and even guilt. Allow yourself to grieve and understand that there is no “right” way to feel during this time.
  2. Plan Ahead: Decide how you’d like to spend the holidays. Do you want to continue traditions, create new ones, or skip celebrations altogether? Developing a plan can reduce uncertainty.
  3. Reach Out for Support: Accept that it’s okay to lean on friends and family for emotional support. Share your feelings and tell them if you need their company or a listening ear.
  4. Honor Your Loved One: Find meaningful ways to remember and honor your loved one. This could involve lighting a candle, creating a memorial, or dedicating part of the holiday to their memory.
  5. Prioritize Self-Care: Self-care after a loss is profoundly essential. Rest, eat well, and engage in activities that bring comfort and joy. Avoid overextending yourself with holiday preparations if it’s too overwhelming.
  6. Establish Boundaries: It’s okay to decline invitations or limit event participation if you’re not up for them. Be honest with others about your needs and boundaries.
  7. Create New Traditions: Consider starting new holiday traditions that can include your loved one’s memory. This can help you focus on the positive aspects of the season.
  8. Seek Professional Help: If you find coping extremely difficult, don’t hesitate to contact a therapist or grief counselor who can provide guidance and support.
  9. Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and emotions can be therapeutic. It allows you to process your grief and gain insight into your feelings.
  10. Remember Healing Takes Time: Grief doesn’t follow a schedule. Be patient with yourself and understand that it’s okay if you don’t feel better right away. Healing is a gradual process.

We at Arlington are acutely aware of the dynamics of grief and the direct interplay and impact of the holiday season on those grieving. As the holiday season approaches, we will continue to provide additional grief information that may be helpful to you in your journey.