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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song tells us. But if you’re dealing with grief — especially following the death of a loved one — the holiday season can become a barrage of painful reminders.

Surrounded by holiday joy and cheer, you may feel overwhelmed by traditions that remind you of your loss, pressured by how you think you should feel, or perhaps tempted to numb the pain. No matter what Hallmark says, the holidays are a stressful time, even for people who aren’t dealing with grief.

In the United States, more people die of natural causes in, or before arriving at, an emergency room on the individual dates of Dec. 25, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1 than on any other day of the year. This phenomenon mirrors what some researchers have dubbed the Christmas holiday effect, in which the United States sees elevated cardiovascular deaths in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s Day.

There are many possible explanations for these increased mortality rates, including the overlap with flu season and the fact that hospitals are often short-staffed during these holidays. Another theory is that dying people will often hold on to spend one last holiday with family. In any case, the effect is that many of us are grieving during a time of year that seems designed for celebration.

“Our cultural expectation is that holidays are the time when family comes together,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. If someone you love has died or your family can’t be together, though, “it’s going to be harder because you have this expectation of what you want it to be. The discrepancy between how things are and how we want them to be is more salient in the holiday season.”

Rather than resisting the reality of grief during the holidays, work toward a version of your experience that addresses what you need to honor your feelings — whatever they are. These six steps can help you handle grief at this time of year.

1) Feel your feelings. 

The first step is to acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is a normal emotion. “What we resist persists,” Neff says. “If you try to force it or fix it, it makes it worse and will make the grief last longer.”

Be compassionate and kind with yourself and loved ones. There’s no right way to experience grief, no “appropriate” amount of time in which you have to “get over it,” Neff says. “It’s really about giving yourself permission to be exactly where you are and not to feel that you have to be someplace else in your grieving process.”

2) Plan ahead. 

It’s easy to feel daunted by the hustle and bustle of the holidays, especially if you’re emotionally stressed. But exerting a bit of control over your circumstances makes the grieving process easier, and knowing what’s coming can reduce the chance of feeling overwhelmed.

Schedule free time on your calendar so you can exercise or take a walk or care for yourself in whatever way you need. If you’re going to an office party or family gathering that you suspect will be difficult, take along a grief buddy. That’s a friend who can be your wing person, monitor alcohol intake, and maneuver a quick exit if you start flagging, explains yoga therapist Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT, author of From Grief to Peace.

Or consider making plans for immediately after the gathering, like meeting a friend to debrief the event over tea or snuggling with your dog. Seek out confidantes who can listen without judgment or advice, who can be “a heart with ears,” says Ed Owens, vice president of the Grief Recovery Institute in Bend, Ore.

3) Learn to say no

The holiday traditions you used to adore can feel like a burden when you’re struggling. It’s OK to take a break from making the cranberry sauce or attending annual parties — and especially from obligations that bring up too many painful memories or make you feel spread thin. Let go of traditions that aren’t serving you now and know that you can always resume them another year. Steer clear of relatives who may be especially triggering for you.

You might want to replace the usual shopping trip with a day of volunteering for a cause that would resonate with the person you’re mourning, Stang suggests. Ignore objections from family or friends who don’t understand, and remind yourself that everyone grieves differently. “We can’t make everybody happy, and that’s hard,” Stang concedes. “But the most important thing is to reduce your suffering.” 

4) Put your physical body first. 

You face higher risk of injury or death in the year after losing a loved one, Stang explains. That’s partly because of reduced immune functioning due to the stress and partly because you’re more prone to accidents when exhausted and distracted.

Guard against this by giving your body good nutrition, adequate sleep, and movement — any kind of movement, even if you’re not up for your usual exercise routine. Moving your body releases neurochemicals that give you hope and facilitate bonding with others, says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Joy of Movement.

“One of the things that surprises people who are grieving is that you don’t always get that immediate boost you’re used to from exercising,” McGonigal says. “You can feel as though this feeling that you’ve known your whole life is abandoning you when you need it most. Moving your body still helps; it just might feel different.”

In fact, group fitness classes are one of the few places you can connect with other people without feeling pressure to put on a happy face or play a certain role. “You get all the connection that comes from moving together and breathing together and sweating together,” she adds. It also wards off the tendency mourners might have to isolate themselves at a time when human connection can be so healing.

5) Get support. 

If a group fitness class doesn’t speak to you during this time, find another way to resist the common impulse to become isolated. In grief, you need the help and support of caring family and friends. “Every human experiences grief,” Owens says. “It’s one of our most shared fundamental emotional experiences.”

Many organizations offer professional support, whether through grief counselors, support groups, or services provided by local hospitals. Check bulletin boards and websites for announcements or try your local mental health associations.

One good resource is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which can offer referrals to grief resources, counselors, and groups. There’s also the Grief Recovery Institute’s handbook, available in libraries and bookstores nationwide; the organization also offers free e-books on its website.

6) Take action. 

Owens teaches people to communicate unsaid emotions or messages to a lost loved one. “We carry these things with us that we didn’t have a chance to tell the other person — things we didn’t have a chance to do that we desperately wanted to do,” he says. “We identify what we wish had been better or different, and then we can take some actions around those emotions.”

You can find closure by acknowledging and sharing your conflicted feelings in writing, as if composing a letter to your loved one, or by talking with a trusted friend.

You can also find ways to honor your loved ones, such as by placing pictures of them on a table by the door, where you can pause in a moment of mindfulness. Or perhaps you could create a new holiday tradition in remembrance of them, or simply let yourself feel their presence during the season, Stang says. “They’re no longer physically here; how do we continue our love even though they’re physically absent?”

Karen Paul, an essayist and fundraising consultant in Takoma Park, Md., lost her husband, Jonathan, to glioblastoma. She planned to immerse herself in a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, every month the year after he died to “wash myself of grief.”

Mark Cobb, of Silver Spring, Md., sent a floral bouquet every Dec. 21 to the mother of his best friend, Matthew, who died of AIDS in 1991, to honor the anniversary of Matthew’s funeral. “The last bouquet I sent was to her funeral. If anything closed out that chapter, it was that last bouquet,” recalls Cobb, who now feels only the sweetness of memories. “How lucky am I that those people were in my life!”

Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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  1. God is good he allowed me to see that article in which I was just sitting here thinking about my sister when this holiday season I miss her so much and it is very touching it’s like I don’t wanna do anything because she’s not here and I’m so used to her being here and we hanging out together no matter what even if I went home I will go to her house and visit or sometime stay it’s such a hurting thing to lose a loved one it hurt so bad everything my sister and I were very close I feel like I lost a mother again father God please give me strength and help me make it through this it is such a hearty thing I have so many moments but I just sit around and cry and don’t want to do anything even exercise I usually get out more but it hurts so bad to know that I can’t talk to my sister as I’m walking and this holiday season we are usually on the phone regardless of the holiday or not all hours of the night if I want to talk I can call her sometimes we don’t talk about anything we just laugh and saying I guess we just go sit on the phone and never each other talk about the good all days and how we miss our mother as well well now she and my mother or together and she wanted that for a long time ever since my mother Was called home to be with the Lord I’m a little jealous now and I wish I was with them but God and I thank God for allowing me to still be standing after my health issue i’m just asking Jesus to take the wheel and help me through this and hurt her so bad I miss you my dear sister Debra so much you don’t know I wish I could turn back the hands of time and just talk to you one more time and give you a hug I can remember our last conversation you were so weak I said you must go to the hospital let me call 911 and you said no that you would call them Lord Jesus if I could turn back the hands of time I wish I could’ve been there with youHad no strength I had kept calling you but you never answer until that last time I called I knew something was wrong because you were so weak you could hardly talk I love you I miss you so much sister please continue to watch over me and the family as well God bless your soul rest in peace in heaven I have your picture right here by my bed there’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think of you you’re always in my heart in my thoughts all my mind yes I have my days where I cry a lot your great niece Marissa came in the room last week and she saw me crying and she saidGet a book and read it and that will take your mind off of your sister I said thank you Marisa you’re so kind and thoughtful and she gave me a hug because she always called you grangran sometimes it’s just thevlittle things that helps pull you through thank God for grandchildren Today is December 12 the day after your brothers birthday at 1:29 AM love you sister Debra Robinson so much my God love you more

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