The 3 C’s of Coping With Holiday Grief

Finding Solace During Times of Celebration

Holidays and special celebrations—whether the kind that leave stores decorated for months, the ones that your family finds special significance in, or personal celebrations like birthdays and anniversaries—can be one of the most unpredictable and difficult times of the year for grievers. Here are some tips for coping with holiday grief, including Kenneth Doka’s “3 C’s.”

1. Choose. Families and communities who have experienced loss already can have very different needs and expectations from one another. Often, those differences are magnified during times of celebration. Holidays are also times of tradition. You might have gone to the same aunt’s house every year on Christmas Eve, or maybe you exchange care packages for Valentine’s Day with your sister. Death, divorce, and change can create a complicated tension between wanting to continue celebratory traditions and finding them too painful or simply not possible after your loss.

You get to choose how and if you want to celebrate. You might want to do something familiar or something new. You might want to do nothing at all, or wait to see how your grief shows up on the morning of your wife’s birthday to decide. Before a significant day  arrives, think about the choices you have: who you want to spend time with, where you want to be, and what—if anything—you want to do. Remember, also, that what you choose to do one year does not lock you into an annual tradition. You can change your mind at any time.

2. Communicate. Since everyone who experiences a loss wants different things to feel supported, it is important to talk about what those wants and needs are with the people who will experience the difficulty of holidays with you. Your brother might want to spend Thanksgiving alone or just with you to have a quiet commemoration of your mother, but you might want to be around as many people as possible. There is no wrong approach, and it’s ok to celebrate and feel happy. Conversations are the best way to express your needs and understand those of your family and friends.

3. Compromise. It is likely that how you want to spend a celebration will be different from others in your family. If you and your brother want to make sure you spend Thanksgiving together, you might compromise by having a small dinner with the two of you and joining a bigger group of loved ones for dessert. Compromise can also arise in the way you want to commemorate your loss—if at all. You might find comfort in leaving flowers on your grandfather’s grave every year on his birthday, but your cousins might not like going to the cemetery. Though you are dealing with the loss in your own way, you may be able to come together by compromising and respecting everyone’s unique wishes.

As you navigate the complexities of celebratory times, here are some questions to ask yourself and talk with your loved ones about:

  • What do I feel obligated to do, or like I should do?
  • What feels like the “right” way to celebrate this holiday?
  • What traditions do I want to keep this year?
  • How can I commemorate my loved one or my loss?
    • Some examples include giving a gift in honor of someone, reminiscing through pictures, or lighting a special candle.
  • What plans can I put in place to help me cope?
    • You might ask others for help taking on specific responsibilities, make time to give back to others, or keep yourself as available as possible to be present with your feelings.

Whether times of celebration bring great stress or pass by you among your other days of living with grief, taking time to reflect on your needs and lean on those around you can make those days a little less dark and more filled with hope.

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