When The Holidays Set Off Love Pangs Of Grief

Words by Vivian Nunez. Photo by Ruth Black / Stocksy.
The holidays aren’t joyful for everyone, and when they trigger feelings of grief and loss, it’s important to know how to cope.

The holidays can have different beginnings. For some, it’s the holiday season the minute after the last of the Thanksgiving turkey is polished off.  For others, it’s the first movie night, perhaps with Elf as the movie of choice. For me, it’s when my grief begins to feel  heavier and colder. I start thinking about the season in terms of how many years it’s been since I last trimmed a tree with my mom or held my grandma’s hand as the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve. 

17 years and 6 years, respectively. 17 years of holidays without my mom have given me 17 years of grief-filled winters.

In the year that has been 2020, we’re looking at more than one family who will be missing their loved ones during a season that screams family, traditions, and togetherness. To say that the first year is hard is an understatement, and as the years have piled up, I’ve learned that all years are actually hard in their own specific way. 

What Helps? 

In the midst of grief, finding anchors that will help you stay grounded help the most. New traditions or revisiting old traditions can be one of those anchors. 

Allison Gilbert, grief expert and author of Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive says that involving the five senses in your tradition-making can help. 

“The sentimental longing for the past is actually uplifting and actually makes us feel stronger and more connected to our loved ones,” explains Gilbert. 

When cooking, for instance, we’re able to embrace so many of our senses and create a safe container for those feelings of love and longing we feel during the holidays. “If you are baking or you are sautéing or you are grilling, or whatever you’re doing in the kitchen, if that then allows you to then smell those wonderful aromas that maybe you remember from your childhood, that’s really evocative.” 

Give Grief Its Space

The worst feeling is often the one that bubbles up when you’re in a fight with yourself. You feel guilty for feeling sad, and you feel sad because you’re human, and there’s so much you can’t control about missing someone during this season. While grief can be an uphill battle, it doesn’t have to be. 

Yearly, I choose to find moments when I can sit with my boyfriend and invite in our new traditions, but also ones that help me remember my mom and grandma. On our tree this year, there were two ornaments, a letter B and a letter D, that were stand-ins for our family names. But I also realized they are the first initial for my grandma and mom’s names. It’s a sweet twist on something that was purely ours. 

Gilbert encourages anyone coping with grief during the holidays to be intentional about setting up time for your grief, so as not to get bulldozed by it. 

“One of the ideas that I write about in Past and Present is the notion that seems so obvious, but is so often pushed aside, which is to give grief 100% of your attention,” explains Gilbert. “What I mean by that is, it’s not 100% of your attention every day of every minute. [Instead it’s] about carving out time that you can focus within your day for a concentrated period of time. Whether it’s giving grief 100% for 15 minutes or one minute or one hour, allowing yourself to focus and not be distracted by the hubbub of the holidays is a way of honoring and validating and really recognizing that your life truly is different following the loss of your loved one.” 

While the inkling during this season may be to try to outrun the pangs of pain that come from our grief, to the best of our ability, sitting with them and honoring those feelings is the best way to do ourselves justice.