Grief and the Holidays


The holidays can be especially challenging if you are dealing with the death of someone close to you. Whether it was a recent loss or one that occurred some time ago, feelings of grief can be heightened. This is a time for traditions and togetherness, but the ways in which we gather and celebrate have changed. Understanding how grief affects you, talking about holiday plans with those close to you, and remembering your loved ones can help.

Grief and bereavement are universal. Grief is the human response to loss, but how we process grief is unique to each of us. There is no predictable timetable or pattern. Grief also has physical effects. You may experience:

  • Fatigue/exhaustion
  • Lack of appetite or trouble eating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches or other illnesses
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of patience/increased agitation

Grief activates the part of the brain responsible for emotion and stress. Grief literally changes brain chemicals and hormones, interrupting normal brain functioning. These symptoms are a sign to pay close attention to your health and to take good care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself, sleep when you can, and remember you are not imagining these reactions.

Grief counseling or joining a grief support group may help. Connecting with those in a similar situation can provide new perspectives, affirm that what you are going through is normal, and offer much-needed support.

Your healing might include embracing the love and memories you shared with your loved one. You may find comfort in sharing stories among family and friends, making favorite foods, looking at photographs of happy memories or past holidays, or creating new traditions. Let your feelings be your guide. Navigating through the activities of the season may actually provide a needed sense of empowerment.

There are things to remember if a friend or family member is experiencing grief over the holidays. We may want to offer advice or avoid talking about it. Most times our friend or family member needs us to acknowledge their pain. Things not to say:

  • “I understand how you feel.”
  • “Stop crying.”
  • “At least they are in a better place. Their suffering is over.”
  • “At least they lived a long life. Many people die young.”
  • “Shouldn’t you be over this by now?”
  • “There is a reason for everything.”
  • “You have to be strong for your spouse, children, mother, etc.”

Things to say instead:

  • “I know how much you loved them.”
  • “I wish I had the right words for you.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here to listen.”
  • “I am so sorry.”

Do something practical to help. Take food or restaurant gift cards. Check-in during the holidays. Instead of asking if they need help, show up with dinner or let them know you will be by to help with laundry and/or cleaning.

Most importantly, talk about the person who died. Many people are afraid that doing so will make things worse for those left behind. That is not the case. Those who are grieving do not want their loved ones to be forgotten, and they welcome the chance to share memories.

About the Author

Author Prevention and Community Education

Chestnut Health Systems™ Prevention programs provide community education and training on teen substance use and pregnancy prevention to all age groups. Whether you are a student, parent, educator, health professional, civic leader, business person, or concerned citizen, you can play a role in prevention. For more information about prevention services in your county, click here.

If you or someone you know needs assistance with mental health, substance use disorder, or prevention education, please contact us at 888.924.3786 in central Illinois and 618.877.4420 in Madison and St. Clair Counties, Metro East, IL, and Hillsboro, MO.