Blog Managing this Holiday Season with grace and self-compassion

This time of year, is difficult for many, even those who have not gone through the death of a loved one. Having lost someone dear and going through your first holiday season without them leaves us feeling so very vulnerable and uncertain. Management is key during this season—management of yourself and your expectations, plus the expectations of others. One of the most important aspects of this foreign territory is acknowledging that there are some things you can control and some you cannot.

Although we cannot predict nor control all situations, we can anticipate situations and decide ahead of time what our options are.

One of the things I always remind grieving people of during the holiday season is that it is essential to think about what you are doing as more healing or less healing. Some of the things we have done every year in the past may not be “more healing” this year. Go over what you can and cannot do and give yourself permission to do things differently. This change in holiday routine may not be permanent, but it is essential to give yourself a pass on things that feel overwhelming this year – even if well-meaning friends and even family insist you “should” do something. People often ask me how they know what to let go of, and my answer is always the same – your gut will tell you. Listen to it. There is no need to be superhuman; your heart is trying to heal.

Have a Plan A and a Plan B for situations you need clarification on. Think things through – how would it feel to do this? How would it feel if I did not do it?

One of my favorite things to talk about is the importance of taking back control where you can.

We are already feeling out of control when we are grieving; so many things have been taken away without our permission.

Carefully responding to things that arise during the holiday season is very important. For instance. If you really cannot attend a gathering that you said you would, simply reach out and say you cannot make it after all. That is all – no need for a big explanation. This is about YOU.

Drive yourself wherever you are going. People seem to love picking up grieving people and driving them around as though they have forgotten how to drive. Do not get stuck somewhere without a way out!

Practice the Irish Goodbye.

I learned about this only a few years ago. If you get overwhelmed and need to go home from a gathering – just leave. Know where your coat is, get it, and quietly walk out to your car and drive away. You can text your host later to thank them and say you need to go home.

Everyone understands this. It is self-care on your part to take yourself out of a situation you are struggling with. Even though you know these people love you and only want the best for you it is still okay to take care of you first.

Sadly, grieving people often have to teach others how to treat them. If someone has not been through what you are going through, they cannot know how you feel.

Sometimes, you have to communicate directly. For instance, when asked how you are (which is the worst enemy question for a grieving person), you can say, “Today I am struggling,” or Sometimes I’m okay, and 20 minutes later I’m not.”  Thank you for asking. A quick way out of that question is to say something brief and immediately ask how they are.

Unfortunately, managing others’ expectations is an energy-draining, very important part of making it through this holiday season. It is worth the energy to be clear with people. The most critical piece of this is that people mean well and genuinely want you to be okay. The problem is many do not know what to do when you are not okay. Be clear. “No, I can’t commit to that.”   “I would love to think I would be up for that. I am just not sure from day to day how I will feel, so I cannot give you a definite answer.”

If you immediately know you cannot do something, say no. You will feel more grounded.

You may want to do something on your own in honor of the person who died to feel more connected to them. Some suggestions:

Go for a walk quietly and think of memories of them for which you are grateful. No need to talk to others about it – hold it in your heart.

Wear something of theirs.

Light a candle just for them and have a moment before your day begins.

Most importantly, be gentle with yourself – you are hurting. Treat yourself as you would a good friend. This is not an easy road, and it is not meant to be traveled alone.

Let the right people accompany you.

Our world gets small when we are grieving – that is normal. Surround yourself with those who will just quietly let you be.

There will most likely be moments of joy mixed in there – feeling both sad and joyful at the same time confuses us, but it is all part of the chaos of grieving.


Blog post by Jean Behrens LCSW-R, East End Hospice Adult Bereavement Coordinator.