Grief Self-Care for the Holidays
Sharon L. Werner, MA, LLPC, DP-C
Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve. Jack Kornfield, PhD
The pain was stunning.
IIt was as confusing as it was shocking. I was surrounded by the sight of cheerful, decorated Christmas trees and the joyful sound of carols. Yet, the season I thought I loved so much was becoming a trigger for unexpected, darker feelings. But, why now? My father had died almost five decades ago, after all. Why were grief, sadness, and rage swirling in my heart after so many decades? I wanted my warm, joyful, happy holiday self back…but it seemed she was nowhere to be found.
The holidays are known to be a difficult period for those struggling with grief. It is no surprise to us that those who have recently lost an important person in their lives struggle to make it through the holidays. When we have lost a spouse, parent, partner, child, grandparent, good friend, pet, job, or a life’s dream, the holidays provide a stark contrast to the sadness. And, other grief-related feelings we may hold inside.
What may seem more surprising is that the grief of loss can reappear when we least expect it. Especially if an element of trauma is involved. This may involve all of its attendant feelings including sorrow, shock, anger, and even rage. Even once we believe we have adjusted to a particular loss. It isn’t unusual for our grief to be, at least to some degree, unprocessed for a variety of reasons. Thus, leaving us vulnerable to triggers and symptoms that we hardly understand and no longer associate with the original loss.
The question then becomes: How can we take care of ourselves during the holidays? when we are feeling exactly the feelings we don’t want to feel?
- Recognize that difficult feelings are normal when we have experienced a loss. These feelings are especially present around the holiday season when we are surrounded by images of loving families and joyful celebrations. In particular, don’t be afraid to recognize anger as a natural part of grief. It may show up in ways you don’t expect. This may include ways such as irritability when waiting in a long line at the store. This can build as the frustrations at the losses and irritations of daily life can trigger unprocessed grief.
- Honor your feelings, whatever they are. You may or may not choose to act on your feelings. But, you can be present to them and care for yourself during times of struggle.
- Take time to ask yourself every now and then, “What do I need? What do I need right now?” What things can you do for yourself that feel kind, nurturing, and caring at this moment?
- Then, as often as possible, take steps to honor your feelings and needs. You may need to reach out and connect with other people. Or, you may feel the need to have time to yourself. You may even need to rest, watch a movie, take a warm shower, bake cookies, or ask someone to cook for you.
- Allow yourself to cry if the urge comes on.
- Feel free to pass on opportunities for holiday celebrations if attending them feels overwhelming.
- Consider reaching out to connect with people who know, love, and support you, and can hold space with you as you open up about the way you are feeling.
- Understand that your feelings may be intense at times. But, if you honor them and allow them to express themselves fully, they are more likely to pass.
- Your feelings and reactions may feel too difficult to manage on your own. If so, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. A trained clinician can help you understand and work with the complicated aspects of grief and loss.
Below are two brief exercises that can be used to honor and work with your natural feelings of loss. They both come from the Mindful Self Compassion approach (Germer and Neff, below).
Self-Compassion Exercise: Meeting Difficult Feelings with Compassion
Take a few long, slow, easy breaths to settle in and let go of the busyness of the day. You may even choose to bring a slight smile to your lips. One that conveys a sense of warmth and acceptance to your experience.
If it feels comfortable, close your eyes and place your hand over your heart in a gentle way. Allow yourself to feel the warmth and kindness of your hand on your heart. Take slow and gentle breaths for about a minute, allowing yourself to feel the rhythm of your breathing.
Next, scan your body and notice any places of discomfort or tension. Slowly, and with great caring, scan your:
- And feet
When scanning, take notice of any tension that may be present.
Now bring your attention to the part of your body where you feel the most discomfort. For a moment, notice this discomfort without trying to change it. Then let yourself physically and mentally soften around that area. Breathe into the area with warmth, ease, and an intention to care for it.
Offer yourself some warmth and kindness. Use words you might use with a good friend or that a good friend might use with you. These words could be simple wishes for compassion and wellbeing. The words may be as simple as:
“May I be well. May I be safe. May I be held in loving kindness. May I be at peace. May I be at ease. May I accept myself in all of the seasons of life. May I be at ease with all of my feelings.”
Now scan your whole body and bring your attention again to any places of discomfort. Let the feelings be just as they are, but surround them with a sense of warmth, kindness, and caring. Let there be a sense of friendliness and spaciousness surrounding the feelings. Letting them be as they are, just for this moment.
Now slowly open your eyes.
What Do I Need to Hear?
Find a space where you won’t be interrupted for 10-15 minutes. Let yourself settle in, perhaps surrounded by items that comfort you. This may be a lit candle, a soft blanket, a gift given by someone who loves you deeply. If it feels right, play soothing music. It can be helpful to keep a notebook nearby to write down ideas and phrases that come to mind.
Allow yourself to sit quietly for a few minutes.
You may place a hand over your heart as a reminder that we are deliberately cultivating care and compassion for yourself and your feelings.
Now, when you are ready, ask yourself, “What do I need to hear? What words, if whispered in my ear by someone who loves me, would make me feel safe and cared for? What words do I need right now in this moment?” Then sit quietly for a few minutes and wait to see what words arise.
Perhaps the words would be, “You are safe. You are loved. You are cared for. It’s OK to feel whatever you are feeling. I’m here for you. You are worth loving. You are worth caring for.”
If you choose, you can write down these words in a notebook. Then, be creative! Use these phrases in any way that would feel caring to you. You might program reminders into a smartphone to bring these phrases up at random as a reminder to handle yourself with care. You may choose to draw simple illustrations for these words and place them on your refrigerator. Or, near a mirror in your bathroom.
Would you like to learn more about working with grief?
Our therapists are trained to help you work with grief and loss. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning more about working with grief and loss, please contact us today. We would be happy to speak with you about how we may be able to help.
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Blog: A Compassionate Approach to Anger
The Mindful Self-Compassion Program (Christopher Germer, PhD and Kristin Neff, Phd)
Self-Compassion for the Holidays
Guided Meditation from Jack Kornfield, PhD:
Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss – Sameet M. Kumar, PhD
Mindfulness and Grief – Heather Stang
Mindfulness for Prolonged Grief: A Guide to Healing after Loss when Anxiety, Depression, Anxiety, and Anger Won’t Go Away – Sameet M. Kumar, PhD
No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life – Thich Nhat Hanh
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha – Tara Brach
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times – Pema Chodron