This season, day-to-day life is still upended by the pandemic, and so many of us are struggling with loss. You can't outwit sadness with holiday cheer, but meeting grief head-on and embracing it can help.
Why grief feels so hard to handle this holiday season
While coping with grief is always a day-to-day challenge, it can pose a bigger challenge when the holidays arrive. That's especially true this holiday season, when many of us are still reeling from loss we experienced due to the pandemic.
"If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19, you're adjusting to a new way of life without that person—and the holiday season, which tends to be centered around our loved ones, will likely remind you of that loss," Cassandra Godzik, associate dean and professor at the School of Nursing at Regis College, tells Health. Godzik is a practicing psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner whose work involves patients who are experiencing loss, grief, and bereavement.
"Even if you haven't lost someone to COVID-19, all of our lives have been impacted in some way by the pandemic—whether you lost a job, took a pay cut, or you've had to compromise on your previous way of life in some way," Godzik explains. "It's all loss, which can feel especially difficult right now."
That's because in western culture, there's a strong imprint about what the holidays should and should not look like, Merryl Rothaus, LPC, a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in grief, loss, and trauma, tells Health. "We're conditioned to believe this season should be happy, cozy, and joyful. So if we're not feeling these things, we tend to think, There must be something wrong with me. And that tends to make grief feel even stronger." This type of thinking can also result in a cascade of shame and lead to isolation, adds Rothaus, as well as other mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
Then there's the nature of grief itself, which doesn't follow a tidy schedule and can't be outwitted with holiday cheer. Miami-based Amy Stone, 47, discovered this the hard way the Christmas after her dad died of a sudden heart attack. As a mom of two, she ignored her own sadness in an effort to make the holiday extra meaningful for her family. But when Christmas rolled around, she was too cranky to celebrate. "I realized that by throwing myself into planning the holiday and going above and beyond to make it special, I was really just trying to outrun my grief," Stone tells Health. "And as I found out, that's an impossible feat."
Grief's "spotlight effect"
Luckily, time tends to act as a salve, softening the sharp edges of grief. But that's not to say it won't surface in ways that cut deep. It's been a decade since Stone's dad died, and she says her sadness still feels amplified around the holidays. "Every year is a reminder that he isn't with us to read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and to see my kids get older," she says. "We've made new traditions, which are wonderful. But it doesn't make the sadness of my dad's absence go away."
Gina Moffa, LCSW, a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker who specializes in grief therapy, calls this the spotlight effect.
"The holidays tend to shine a spotlight onto everything you don't have," Moffa tells Health. "Not everyone is on good terms with their family or there will be someone missing this year. COVID-19 came without warning and changed everything at once, and we're still dealing with the trauma of that. Add to all of this the societal pressure that the holidays be 'perfect,' and it's a recipe for misery."
This focus on "perfection" tends to make us long for things we don't actually want, adds Moffa. "Every year around the holidays, I see those car commercials—you know, the one where the husband buys the wife a fancy SUV and it's waiting for her in the driveway, presumably on Christmas morning, with a big bow on the hood and a light snow falling gently. And I find myself feeling jealous, even though I would never want that life," she says. "When you think about it, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves for three days out of the year. And that pressure amplifies our dark, sad moments and losses even more."
Getting through the season when you're grappling with loss
So, what's the answer? A staggering 36% of Americans report that they don't feel like celebrating the holidays this year (2021), according to a survey conducted by Harris Poll and Experience Camps, a nonprofit focused on coping resources for grieving children. If you fall into that category, how do you go about facing the season?
The truth is, there's no one way to navigate your grief. But the more options you have for what this season might look like, the more able you'll be to make space for your grief during a time when the expectation is to be cheerful—something experts agree is key. "Meeting your pain rather than trying to extinguish it isn't easy, but it is the way through it," says Rothaus. Here's a start.
Think of grief as another form of love
One of the reasons grieving during the holidays can be so tricky is because we interrupt our grieving process with some version of "I shouldn't be crying or feel sad right now," says Dawson. Yet if there's a silver lining to grief, it's that it reminds us of how much love we had for the person we lost, she says.
"The reality is, we don't grieve things that don't matter," she says. "When we're grieving, it means we loved someone, that they mattered in our lives, and that we deeply miss them." When you remind yourself of this, it's easier to reframe feeling sad as a healthy, accurate sign that you loved someone so much, your heart is breaking because they're no longer here.