Balancing Grief and Gratitude During the Holidays
We are speeding into the holiday season on what feels like the Polar Express, turbo edition. Anyone else feel that way? I’m sure it happens every year but once the Jack-O-Lanterns get blown out and the kids come off the Halloween sugar high, it’s full speed ahead into the holidays. That can be stressful all on its own but if you are also walking into the season carrying grief, it can feel especially challenging. However, I have found in my own grief journeys that an “attitude of gratitude” can help refocus my perspective and pull me up from a “woe-is-me” mindset. This blog will hopefully give you some tips on how to balance grief and gratitude so that you can not only “make it” through the holidays, but also find moments of joy and contentment.
Understanding Grief During the Holidays
It can be helpful to spend some time identifying common triggers and thinking through how you’ll respond to them, so there’s less chance you’ll be caught off guard. Depending on what loss you are grieving and how recent the loss occurred, could also play a role. Losing a loved one is especially hard around the holidays as their absence can feel even greater. Navigating family dynamics could also complicate things. Maybe you are grieving a divorce and are figuring out how shared holidays will work. If you miscarried or lost a child, parties with lots of kids running around may leave you feeling sad. Loneliness and isolation can easily creep in, even if you are in a room full of people.
Acknowledging the different stages of grief, and the stage you are currently in, can help you strategize how best to move forward and what commitments may hinder that. The initial stages of denial and shock can leave you feeling unstable and numb. Or you may compartmentalize your feelings and think you are “totally fine” and should host that party that you always host. But make sure you evaluate your feelings and are in a healthy place or you could end up crying in the kitchen covered in flour because you couldn’t find the right measuring cup. Anger and guilt come next, generally, and could leave you feeling more like The Grinch. Be careful of the words you choose when speaking to loved ones during this stage. Finally, acceptance arrives and your emotions start to level off. You can maintain healthy boundaries while also supporting friends and family.
The impact of unprocessed grief on one's mental and emotional well-being can be profound. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can just “get through” the holidays and deal with your grief later. It’s sure to make itself known one way or another.
The Importance of Gratitude
Being thankful shouldn’t just be reserved for Thanksgiving. Gratitude, I believe, should be a constant in our life. If gratitude doesn't come naturally to you, or you are in a season that has left you feeling like Eeyore, take heart - gratitude can be learned! Before we go further, take a minute to watch some of these Eeyore quotes to know if you need to self-identify as the gloomy donkey from Winnie-The-Pooh.
As I mentioned, gratitude is a skill that can be practiced. This Forbes article gives eight ways to have more gratitude every day. Some include:
- Appreciate everything, big and small
- Find gratitude, even in the hard things
- Keep a gratitude journal (and write in it daily!)
- Volunteer and find ways to serve others
There have been numerous studies over the years on gratitude and the brain. This one shows that gratitude can actually help improve your mental health through various ways. Others discuss how gratitude can boost serotonin levels which in turn produces dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. Basically, the more gratitude you have, the happier you will feel.
Gratitude is a choice we make a hundred times each day. This photo taken on Christmas Eve 2016 was nine months after we lost our second son at full term. I remember it was a delicate balance of grief and gratitude that holiday season.
Strategies for Balancing Grief and Gratitude
Creating a space for emotions
- The power of self-compassion - give yourself grace. You don’t have to go to every party you are invited to.
- Journaling as an emotional outlet - write down your thoughts to understand how you are feeling
Honoring traditions and creating new ones
- Revisiting cherished holiday rituals - just because the chair is empty this year, don’t skip their favorite traditions because it feels “too hard”
- Incorporating meaningful, new traditions - think about ways to honor their legacy
Connecting with others
- Seeking support from friends and family - reach out to loved ones and let them know how you are struggling and need support
- Volunteering and giving back to the community - get the focus off yourself and look for ways to support those less fortunate around you
Mindfulness and self-care
- Practicing mindfulness to stay present - spend quiet time each morning and fill up that gratitude journal!
- Prioritizing self-care for mental and emotional well-being - be intentional with ways you could care for yourself
Gifts for Grieving
Seeking Professional Help
As a society, we are still working toward normalizing and prioritizing our mental health. Keep in mind, professional support may be the next best step for you or your loved one walking through grief. From coping skills to calming techniques, mental health experts are trained to help improve your quality of life. Remember, you aren’t committing to a lifetime of counseling. A few sessions during the holiday season may be just what you need to step into a healthy place that allows for joy, gratitude and peace.
We hope this blog helped convey the importance of balancing grief and gratitude over the holidays. Remember, no one can walk your grief journey except you! No one else can do the work you need to do to become the best version of yourself. Take a few moments to think through what areas you need to work on and what action steps are required. As Kevin McCallister’s mom screams at the ticket counter guy, “This is Christmas. The season of perpetual HOPE!” (Shoutout to my Home Alone fans out there ;) Take those words to heart and know this is, truly, the season of hope. It can also become the season of healing, if you let it.
Lanna Britt was a national news producer in Washington DC for nearly a decade covering politics, breaking news and current events. She now lives with her husband and three children in Richmond VA. She has two sweet babies she’ll meet again in heaven.