Tips on coping with loss during the holiday season


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Lonely women sitting on the the sofa at home during christmas

Connor Gargiulo, Editor-in-Chief

The Holiday season is often thought of as one of the merriest times of the year. Whether it’s decking out the Christmas tree, or lighting the menorah or kinara, late December is known for familial get-togethers, eating good food, and celebrating another joyful year. The question that is not often asked is, how can the holidays be celebrated after a year that is less than joyful? What about those years where, despite the warmth and light by which you’re surrounded, you can’t help but think about what you don’t have? This is a harsh reality for many who try their best to celebrate despite living through a year where little was left to celebrate. Here’s the thing — you don’t have to “lighten up” for the holiday season. In fact, pretending that everything is holly-jolly can make the season feel even worse.

Loss is an undeniable fact of life. It’s not something that can be disputed. While we all hope that the circumstances will be favorable and that we’ll have ample time with our loved ones, loss hurts either way. When you’ve lost a family member, cherished pet, or close friend, the holidays might cause these memories to all flood back at once. Anyone well-versed in grief knows the “firsts” without a loved one are some of the worst days; their first birthday, first marriage anniversary, or first New Year’s since they’ve passed. It can be unspeakably difficult to navigate these “firsts” without the person or people in your life who made these traditions so meaningful in the first place.

Last Christmas was my first without my Grandfather, whose house we would go to on Christmas Eve for a warm meal and presents. Always a trickster, even in his declining health, it wasn’t uncommon to find a “Pee Wee Herman” doll sitting in your seat at the dining table, or a Whoopie Cushion placed gingerly under the couch cushion. When we relocated the function to my Aunt’s house, the question was, unfortunately, left hanging in the air: what do we do without him? His absence from the dining room chair where he always sat was one that left quite the impression on me even in the year since.  In my contemplation, here’s what I’ve come to realize.

The first conclusion I have drawn is this: saying nothing is worlds worse than acknowledging the elephant in the room. Sitting around the fire or on the couch with one spot empty is an undeniably sad moment. So say something. Keep in mind, though, your icebreaker should be something fitting for your family and the amount of time since said loss. If Rover died two weeks ago, it might not be appropriate to joke about how you can finally get some peace and quiet without his barking. If your family’s sense of humor is like mine, just doing an impression of what your loved one would say in the moment is enough to clear the tension. Even a small acknowledgement of the loss can relieve the idea that it’s being ignored or forgotten about.

Also, allow for small physical spaces or moments away to honor your loved one. Everyone copes in different ways, and this might mean hiding that grief; so, at holiday gatherings, don’t question when someone leaves suddenly for their bedroom or outside for some fresh air. Instead, wait a few minutes before offering a hug or other appropriate form of support. For some, just being in familiar situations that have now been marred by loss is a lot or even too much for them to handle.

Allow for spaces in conversation too; don’t feel the need to fill every moment of a discussion. If you’re reminiscing over dinner, you don’t necessarily need to make every moment a happy one, or steer away from struck nerves with a distracting quip. Pauses let everyone take a break or a moment to themselves to cherish their personal favorite memories. In fact, sometimes those spaces can be an even better opportunity to heal than what is said.

Will dealing with loss ever be easy? I don’t think so, especially during the holiday season. This year, if someone you love has passed away, or you’re still grieving losses from years past, don’t be afraid to embrace the way that you feel; I guarantee that there will be others alongside you who feel the same way.