Grief during holidays: stages, types and coping tips

A UAB expert provides information on tackling sadness and grief over the winter holiday season.
Written by: Tehreem Khan
Media contact: Anna Jones

stream holiday griefThe holiday season is often portrayed as idyllic, cheerful and full of warmth. But for some, this season can be a time of sadness and grief, which may be caused by a loss of a loved one, loss of identity, loss of dreams or loss of relationships, according to Shannon McCarthy, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education.

Grief: More than an emotion

There are many different definitions of grief, mostly presenting it as an emotion. McCarthy, however, subscribes to the definition of grief as more than an emotion — she sees it as a process consisting of different emotions and experiences. Grief is individualized, meaning that its experience varies across people.

“Grief can look very different for everyone, even for people who have experienced the same loss,” McCarthy said. “Grief doesn’t necessarily have an endpoint; it is not something you ‘get over’ or ‘finish.’ The relationship with loss often changes for people over time; but for many people, the emotions and experiences of grief can ebb and flow in terms of intensity. It can cycle or recur.”

Although grief is very personal and looks different across individuals, McCarthy says the linear model that embodies five stages of grief is widely conversed about. This model is often described and interpreted as seeing everyone progressing from one stage to another until they hit the idea of “acceptance.” According to McCarthy, the way this model is often described as a linear stage model can be faulty because there is not one specific way to grieve.

“The interpretation of this model can be harmful sometimes as people tend to compare themselves to these stages and feel as though they are stuck or not moving along in the grief process,” McCarthy said. “Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief represent experiences and emotions that people certainly may have through the grief process, but they also may not experience some of these at all.”

Types of grief

A mutually exclusive list of types of grief can vary from source to source, but McCarthy describes a few types that can be helpful in understanding grief.  

  • Anticipatory grief may occur when someone receives a diagnosis, and their wellness or health starts to decline
  • Disenfranchised grief can be caused when someone experiences grief due to a loss, but it is not recognized by others
  • Cumulative grief may develop when multiple losses are experienced in a brief period
  • Traumatic grief happens mostly when there is a sudden, unexpected loss or a loss due to violence

According to McCarthy, even within one type of grief, there can be a wide range of emotions, behaviors and experiences.

“I don’t know that it’s as helpful to focus on a specific category or label of grief as it is to focus on an individual’s perception of loss and its impact and one’s unique journey through the grief process,” McCarthy said. “It is important to note, however, that for some people, having a label or definition for a specific type of grief or loss can sometimes bring comfort and a sense of validation.”

Tips to deal with grief

Since the grief process can be unique to each person, it makes sense that grief can function and appear in different ways for people over the holidays. McCarthy says there is not one thing that should or should not be done. Different strategies will work for different people, and that is important to acknowledge. But some possible strategies and considerations include:

  • Be gentle with yourself. Pay attention to the “shoulds” that you tell yourself or that you perceive from others, such as “I should attend this event,” “I should keep all my previous traditions” or “I should act normal.” Pay attention to what feels right and what your body is telling you rather than what you think you “should” do, or what you think is expected of you.
  • Think about setting boundaries. If there are places or people that are upsetting to you or certain factors that trigger you, it is OK to limit or even eliminate your exposure to these if needed, especially earlier on in the grief process.
  • Try not to isolate, but know your limits. While it may not be helpful in the long run to completely isolate yourself, it may be helpful to give yourself permission to just be around people who bring you comfort, or who understand you. You may also find yourself needing a break from social events, or even greatly limiting the number or types of events that you feel up for.
  • Communicate with close friends or trusted family members. It is helpful to talk about what you are feeling and experiencing, what you feel comfortable doing, or what does not feel comfortable. It may be that others are feeling similarly, which can be normalizing and validating, and can help someone to feel less alone. It could also be helpful to prepare others for the fact that you may need to do things differently this year.
  • Carry on with traditions that are comforting. Sometimes it can be comforting to continue with some old traditions or rituals, and a good way to still have a connection with someone who is gone. Check in with yourself about this and communicate with others when there are traditions or rituals that you want to maintain.
  • Consider trying new traditions or rituals. When there is a loss, it may not be possible to continue some previous traditions or events or be with people you have lost. So, trying some new traditions, attending some new events, traveling somewhere new, etc. can allow for a welcome change and an opportunity to focus on experiencing something different.
  • Identify coping skills and activities. It is helpful to be particularly intentional about engaging in activities that bring you pleasure. Going for a walk, exercising, journaling, listening to music and volunteering are a few examples.
  • Identify people you can reach out to. Identifying people you feel comfortable reaching out to can be extremely important. Talking about your grief can be considerably helpful.
  • Be prepared. Things may look different due to grief; there may even be a ripple effect of changes. These times of year may not feel the same, there may be traditions or experiences that no longer happen, and people can grieve very differently. It can be helpful to set the expectation that things likely will not be the same.

What can you do to help?

McCarthy says that one may not be able to alter the situations causing grief to people, but they can help them cope with it by being there for them. Here are a few ways that may help: 

  • If someone you know is grieving, do not be afraid to check in on them during this time.
  • Ask them what they might need or what they feel up for, and express understanding if they need to do things differently during the holidays this year than in the past.
  • Do not just be open to listening to them; explicitly tell them that you are prepared to listen when they are ready or when they need you.
  • Respect their boundaries.
  • If there are times when they want to be alone, or things they do not want to do, honor that. However, at the same time, watch for increased isolation or withdrawal.