Grief can feel even tougher than usual during holiday season — especially in 2020. Here’s how to get through.

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·9 min read

The holiday season, as anyone who has ever mourned the loss of someone they love knows, can be an excruciating time. And, notes Alan Wolfelt, grief counselor and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado, in a new video on the topic, “Without a doubt, this is particularly true this year, in the face of the challenges we all have with COVID-19.”

More than 327,000 Americans have died during the pandemic, and their losses are sure to be felt acutely right now, as their survivors prepare to face the first holiday season without them. People who have lost loved ones by other means, no matter how long ago, will also feel heightened pain.

“In any given year, holiday time is just a minefield of triggers… specifically for people who are living with profound loss. And as holiday season looms, I think a lot of people brace themselves and count down months in advance,” says Rebecca Soffer, CEO and co-founder of Modern Loss, a popular Instagram platform and website of grief-based content, as well as an eponymous book of essays.

Lonely women sitting on the the sofa at home during christmas
More than 327,900 Americans have died during the pandemic, and their losses are sure to be felt acutely during the holiday season (Photo: Getty Images)

“It’s associated with so much ritual and repetition, and so many memories with people we care about… and whether it’s the first year or the 10th year without your person or your people, it just can trigger a lot of anxiety, feelings of isolation, of envy,” she adds. “Though any given Tuesday night is really hard when you’re living with loss.”

Ajita Robinson, a Maryland-based grief and trauma therapist and author of The Gift of Grief: A Practical Guide on Grief and Loss, explains that the difficulty surrounding this season is largely shaped by expectations. “The holidays have a ton of connotations around what they’re supposed to be — some look forward to them if they feel anchored and supported, and some are triggered because the expectation or importance placed on holidays doesn’t align with [what they’re feeling]. Whether it’s holiday, anniversary or other milestone, we’re forced to acknowledge the gap of what we’re expected to feel versus our reality.”

Try to connect with those who comfort you — even if it's virtual — so you can feel your  grief and find support this holiday season, experts advise. (Photo: Getty Images)
Try to connect with those who comfort you — even if it's virtual — so you can feel your grief and find support this holiday season, experts advise. (Photo: Getty Images)

The first such milestone, post-loss, signifies that “the reality of it setting in… because they are missing from the table,” Robinson adds. “Holidays can make it real for the very first time, especially with COVID, when we couldn’t go to the memorial.”

Wolfelt normalizes the amplified feelings of loss around the holidays, noting, “Since love does not end with death, holidays may result in a renewed sense of personal grief—a feeling of loss unlike that experienced in the routine of daily living. Society encourages you to join in the holiday spirit, but all around you the sounds, sights and smells trigger memories of the one you love who has died.”

The pressure to join in has, of course, shifted this year, with warnings issued by everyone from Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Rachel Maddow, who lived through a coronavirus scare, urging people to stay home and have Christmas dinner — and any other typically large-group event — with those in your immediate household.

And that forced isolation can also add to the challenge of being bereaved.

“Loneliness makes grief harder. During the COVID era, people are having to grieve in relatively isolated experiences… and that can be hard,” says psychologist Joanne Cacciatore, a grief and trauma expert and associate professor of social work at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work; she founded the therapeutic Selah Care Farm in Sedona, Ariz., and her latest book is Grieving Is Loving: Compassionate Words for Bearing the Unbearable. “Support groups aren’t meeting in person, and most people would rather meet in person, but this is what we have. The provision of services has changed, and so that sense of disconnection that most people are feeling, generally, is exacerbated when you’re in grief.”

Soffer, who co-founded Modern Loss after losing her mother in a car accident and her father to heart attack, and who hears frequently about the experiences of others in all stages of grief, adds, “Our inability to gather safely is taking away, from a lot of people, their coping mechanisms for how to get through the holidays — an ongoing Christmas Eve brunch with girlfriends, a New Year’s Day movie outing, or even a trip if you just need to escape and don’t want to be in your home or have any frame of reference and that’s your sanity. And all of this has been taken away from us this year.”

What about the universality of the pandemic?

As far as whether or not the pandemic feeling of “all being in this together” can provide solace for those in mourning, “I think it depends on the person, and how they’re experiencing their grief,” Cacciatore says. “When there’s a mass tragedy with a single entity responsible for the loss, there are some people who certainly feel like it doesn’t make a difference, and others feel a connection with those people. I’m not sure anything assuages the grief, though.”

Wolfelt tells Yahoo Life that “grief is very subjective — it turns people inward and suspends them for a period of time. That other people are ‘in the same boat’ when you are in early acute grief offers little consolation.” Down the line, he adds, “as they actively mourn, they often discover the capacity to experience some solace from the common bond of the experience. The ‘affinity’ will come down the line as they come together with other people that share the commonality of the loss,” as has occurred for many of the families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks, or for parents who have lost children in school shootings.

Setting an empty place at the table is one way to honor a lost loved one this holiday season. (Photo: Getty Images)
Setting an empty place at the table is one way to honor a lost loved one this holiday season. (Photo: Getty Images)

But from a standpoint of helping, Wolfelt notes, “we would not want to say ‘you are not alone’ early on in the grief experience,” and risk diminishing an individual’s pain.

It’s Soffer’s hope, though, that because of the pandemic, “Maybe we’ll all be a little more empathic this holiday season.”

Tips for getting through

Allow yourself to feel your grief, and to express it

Ignoring your grief, such as when people advise you to “keep busy,” won’t help the pain go away or soften it, says Wolfelt. “It will actually harden. Authentic mourning is what allows us to integrate grief into our lives while still always realizing we’re changed forever by the death of someone that’s been a part of our lives.”

Try to connect with those who bring comfort

“Sometimes that means Zoom, which I get is totally unsatisfying, or going to a park with friends or family while socially distancing,” says Cacciatore. “Try to connect with those who provide some compassion for your grief and your loss… and of course taking care of the physical body is important — walking, exercising, yoga, putting on a coat and getting some sun — so you can take care of your emotional body.”

Wolfelt adds, “Don't be afraid to express your feelings of grief… Find caring friends and relatives who will listen without judging you.”

Make room to do whatever it is that you need — even if it means letting others down

“I think it’s important to just be aware that we may be triggered and to name what we are experiencing, then we can seek support and create boundaries that are good for self-care,” advises Robinson. “It’s OK to set boundaries around our rules of engagement.”

Adds Soffer, “We put pressure on ourselves, and the calendar, that we should be doing this or that — but that fact is, we are not going to know what we need until we’re in that moment. So, go easy on yourself, make an advance plan of people you can reach out to, say ‘please check in on me… Figure out ways to feel connected to people who make you feel comforted. But give yourself the space to cancel any and all plans, too.”

Well-meaning friends and family often try to “prescribe” what is good for you during the holidays, adds Wolfelt, who suggests, “Instead of going along with their plans, focus on what you want to do. Discuss your wishes with a caring, trusted friend.”

Create new rituals for remembering the person you’ve lost

Robinson suggests doing something to honor the person that’s gone. “You might actually set a plate for your loved one at the dinner table,” she says, “or prepare their favorite meal, watch their favorite movie, or do service to others in line with how that person lived their life.”

Cacciatore agrees, adding additional ideas such as lighting a candle, making special ornaments or offering a donation somewhere in their honor. “And make it intentional rather than accidental,” she says, and encourages the expression of grief, whether by listening to music, creating art, journaling, or whatever way makes sense.

“Just ways to remember and help other people remember — these are all really important things we can do to take care of ourselves in a culture that doesn’t make enough space for honoring grief,” she says. “And this is a very important time to do that.”

This story was originally published on Nov. 25, 2020 at 10:36 a.m. ET and has been updated.

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