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November Mental Health Memo: Managing Grief during the Holiday Season





Holidays and Heartache: Managing Grief during the Holiday Season

About the author: Katie Anderson is a psychiatric social worker at the Human Services Center where she has experience leading a grief support group for adolescents. Anderson is a licensed Certified Social Worker Eligible for Private Independent Practice (CSW-PIP) and a Qualified Mental Health Professional (QMHP). 

With a variety of in-store and online advertisements beginning at the first sign of fall, it is nearly impossible to avoid being bombarded with reminders of the upcoming holidays. For those who are grieving, it may feel like the rest of the world has forgotten their painful loss and moved on without them. The holiday season can be a source of overwhelming dread, particularly for those enduring their first year without a loved one. 

It is inevitable that grief will show up, so it can be helpful to prepare for how grief might show up for you this holiday season. Below are four tips for making this holiday season easier to endure while on your grief journey.  

1. Acknowledge that the holidays will look different this year. There may be some traditions you keep, and others you let go. If traditions bring you comfort, keep doing them, but if they don’t, trust yourself enough to choose what is best for you. If you are anxious about attending an event alone, it may be helpful to reach out to a friend or family member who can accompany you. If there is any chance you may want to leave early, let the host know upfront and make plans to drive yourself to the event. This will set the stage for a smoother exit when you are ready to go. Oftentimes, it is our own expectations or narrative about the event that causes more distress than the event itself.

2. Set boundaries. Know that it is okay to prioritize your grief journey by saying no to activities that do not support your mental wellbeing. Be aware of whose presence may unintentionally drain your energy and whose presence will put you at ease, then plan accordingly. It can be a freeing experience to let go of expectations of what you or your family “should” do during the holidays. 

3. Allow yourself to grieve secondary losses.  Most people can anticipate missing the deceased person on the holiday, but it is not uncommon to be caught off-guard by grieving secondary losses too. You may be grieving the loss of a gathering place you no longer visit, or the long car ride you will no longer take with your loved one, or the help you previously had when shopping for holiday gifts. Everyone’s grief and secondary losses will look different and that is okay.

4. Unapologetically honor your feelings. If you are feeling guilty for your lack of holiday spirit this year, remind yourself that your grief still matters, even amid all the holiday cheer. Lean into those uncomfortable emotions as they ebb and flow. Similarly, finding joy in the holidays does not diminish your grief either. Experiencing happiness may feel like betrayal, however, the amount of suffering you do (or do not) experience is not a reflection or measurement of the amount of love you have for that person. 

Even after following these tips, grief will still be messy and awkward at times. Your experience likely will not be linear, nor will it follow the “Stages of Grief” perfectly, but your grief journey is yours. And how freeing is that—to know there is no right or wrong way to grieve during this upcoming holiday season.

While everyone grieves differently, if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or prolonged sadness that significantly interferes with daily functioning, please seek support. There are mental health resources available to support you. 

To learn more about resource options, visit dss.sd.gov and click on the Behavioral Health tab. You can also visit 605Strong.com or dial 211 to reach the 211 Helpline Center. If you or a loved one is experiencing a behavioral health crisis or having suicidal thoughts please call 1-800-273-8255.