Holiday help part 1: Dealing with grief

Since the holiday season tends to be when we see friends and family more often, it can be bittersweet to acknowledge who’s not there for the celebration, warmth, and togetherness. Grief comes in stages — and sometimes when we least expect it. The intensity of these emotions can feel debilitating, especially if we feel pressure to put on a happy face because it’s “the most wonderful time of the year.”

 Trying to push these emotions down tends to backfire and may turn into what’s called incomplete or unresolved grief. That’s when the grieving process has stalled, and you feel like you can’t move forward. This can manifest in several ways, including anger, obsessing over past events, hypersensitivity or overreaction, and addictive or self-harming behavior.

With that in mind, taking a gentle approach toward yourself is key, including acknowledging the impact of the situation. Consider some coping tactics like these to help you move through those complicated emotions.

Recognize your loss

Although it may be tempting to avoid thinking about grief at all, resolution is often prompted by a meaningful action, according to the Hospice Foundation of America.

That doesn’t have to be a large gesture; you might choose to light a candle in honor of the person who’s gone or place a memento in your home close to other decor — an ornament on a tree, for example — as a way to recognize the impact that person had on your life. Even just a holiday toast that includes them can feel meaningful.

Choose your activities consciously

During the holidays, it can be easy to feel obligated to participate in every planned gathering and event, but grief may limit your energy. When you get an invitation, take a moment to consider how that will fit in with your other plans and whether you feel up to going.

It’s also okay to play it by ear and let people know you’re a “maybe,” so you can see how you feel the day of the event. Communicate your reason if you feel comfortable doing so, and you might find that it creates a connection with others about grief and loss.

Get more movement

Grief is a whole-body experience, so you experience physical effects. For instance, you may have digestive issues, tight muscles, headaches, and a lowered immune response. If you have an autoimmune condition, grief may cause a flare-up of symptoms. Research notes that these are all normal reactions to psychological distress created by grief. Those researchers point out that the death of a loved one has been recognized as the greatest life stressor that humans face — and stress can have major effects on the body.

Because of that, finding ways to ease the physical impact is important, and gentle movement can play a major role. Activity such as yoga, walking, running, dancing, martial arts, and anything else that gets you moving regularly has been shown in research to provide a sense of freedom and more ease with expressing emotions while also enhancing social support — a vital part of grief work. A study on physical activity in young people who’ve lost a parent found that movement can build resilience and create a stronger sense of self.

Be on your own timetable

Most of all, take time to identify and understand how feelings of grief may arise for you. For some people, grief can be a surprise — for example, perhaps you find yourself with fresh grief over a parent who has been gone for decades, or you’re revisiting the details of a breakup that you thought had been resolved.

Because of the warmth and cheer of the holiday season, this may feel like a sour note, but it helps to remember it’s a very common feeling. In fact, one study found that 36% of people surveyed didn’t want to celebrate the holidays at all due to grief and loss. That means you’re certainly not alone if it’s an issue. Try some of the strategies above, and reach out to a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or healthcare provider if you need help talking through these complex emotions.

If you’re a Mass General Brigham Health Plan member, log in to your member portal to check your access to Lyra Health, which offers mental health support, including grief and loss resources.

Learn more about behavioral health offerings at Mass General Brigham Health Plan.

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