Fall is in full force. A hint of winter may be in the air. The holiday season is officially upon us, bringing with it a variety of feelings, memories, and traditions we associate with this time of year.

This season can offer an abundance of cheer, create positive memories, and bring families together. It can also increase our stress, and raise our own and others’ expectations of our time and energy. For grieving people, the holiday season can be a painful reminder of what has been lost. There is nothing like bringing the whole family together to remind us that someone is missing. Amidst the activity of the holidays, there may be a layer of pain that can unexpectedly rise to the surface. Other feelings may complicate the grief experience as well. A grieving spouse may walk by a store and see a gift that is perfect for her loved one. A grieving child may struggle to re-create his mother’s “famous” recipe. Attempts to “carry on” old traditions after a loved one has died may add another helping of grief to an already full plate.

What can be done to cope with grief over the holidays? The COPE acronym might be helpful in understanding the elements of good coping.

C: Compassion for self

O: Open communication

P: Planning

E: Engage in self-care

  • Compassion for self: Trust that - as with any other time of year - there is no right or wrong way to cope with grief around the holidays. It will be different for each person. The one key is to be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
  • Open communication: Be open with others about what your needs are. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to invitations if you are not ready for them. When being invited to events or parties, phrases such as “I hope to come but it is hard to predict what that day will be like for me” or “thank you for asking. I don’t think I’m ready yet, but please ask again” might help people to understand what you are feeling.
  • Planning: The holiday season can be very busy, with many invitations to consider. Since it can be hard to predict ahead of time how you might feel on any given day, plan ahead how you might manage events. It might be helpful to have a backup plan in case you need to leave an event early, or make a last minute change in plans. Decide ahead of time what your limitations are.
  • Engage in self-care: Perhaps you can manage the natural chaos of the season with interludes of emotional and spiritual respite (maybe take a quiet walk, listen to some soothing music, or relax in a warm bath). Another element of self-care may include reaching out to others for support when needed. This may be in the form of a trusted friend or loved one, a spiritual leader, or a grief counselor.

Coping with grief over the holidays takes work. It is not easy, and there will still be pain. But pain does not mean an absence of joy and hope. It is possible to feel a wide range of emotions. Remembering the COPE acronym can help manage the pain as it comes, and may help you to make room for hope and joy during this difficult time.

by Laura B., grief counselor