Doctors Hospital of Augusta - December 23, 2019

The holidays should be a time of tremendous joy. But when you’ve experienced a loss—especially if that loss is recent—the season can bring painful feelings of sorrow to the surface.

Grief manifests differently in different people. It often accompanies the passing of a loved one, but can occur with other losses, like a divorce or being fired from your job. When you’re grieving, it may be marked by crying, sleeping too much or too little, overeating, and a lack of appetite or avoiding social situations. Some people may be at greater risk for complicated grief, or grief that doesn’t get better over time, interfering with their ability to function.

Grief and complicated grief are different from major depression, but depression can develop at any time during the grieving process. People with a history of depression or anxiety, especially if it is undertreated or untreated, may be more vulnerable to the effects of grief.

If you’re worried about grieving over the holidays, try these strategies—so your feelings don’t become overwhelming.

Don’t ignore your grief

There isn’t an expiration date for heartache. It's okay to be sad—even during the holidays. Grief does not go away on its own, but time will help. It also helps to have a place and a way to process your feelings.

Say no sometimes

The holidays are typically fraught with obligation after obligation. You don’t have to say yes to every event, or events that may worsen your grief.

Remember there is a happy medium between not engaging in events that will be triggers and being reclusive.

Don’t overdo commitments

If the thought of throwing an elaborate dinner or event feels overwhelming, simplify your plans. Focus more on the company and less on activities.

Create new customs

When your seasonal traditions are closely tied to a loved one who has passed away, it’s okay to change things up. This can include traveling or hosting the holidays yourself, or even just cooking new foods. You can find ways to honor your loved one, too, like making a group donation to a favorite charity.

Focus on healthy habits

Excess alcohol or drug use may temporarily ease your pain, but it can also damage your body and complicate your long-term recovery. In contrast, eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting adequate sleep may help improve your mood and maintain good health overall.

Give back

Organizing a holiday coat drive or joining an organization important to your deceased loved one, volunteering can help you better cope with your grief during and after the holiday season. Research shows that giving your time to a good cause can reduce the risk of depression, lower stress and reignite a sense of purpose, among other benefits.

Seek professional help

If grief hits hard over the holidays and does not go away, it may be time to seek professional help. These feelings may suggest complicated grief or depression. Talk therapy, with or without medication, can get you back on track. Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a therapist, who can help you handle your grief around the holidays and in the days moving forward.

If your grief is overwhelming and you’re thinking of harming yourself, it’s important to get help right away. Head to an emergency room, dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Medically reviewed in September 2019
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