- While the holidays are a time of joy, they can be challenging for those grieving.
- Physical distancing can make grieving more difficult.
- There are ways to cope with loss during the holidays and COVID-19.
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For many, the holidays bring joy, cheer, and happiness.
However, for others, the holidays can bring about grief and sorrow from the loss of a loved one, particularly this year.
“A lot of people are coping with the death of a loved one on top of other stressors caused by the pandemic, like no childcare for children at home, financial hardship, and other stressors they wouldn’t have had before,” Camille Wortman, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, told Healthline.
Grief during the holidays can add additional stress. In fact, Teralyn Sell, PhD, psychotherapist and brain health expert, says one of the primary indicators of stress is grief.
“This past year has been filled with all kinds of loss, which can be processed as grief. Even the loss of a schedule or of work friends on top of other more profound losses takes a toll,” Sell told Healthline.
When the body is in a stress response, she says it responds by producing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which is a natural response to situations that come and go, such as those experienced in fight or flight mode.
“However, as the pandemic lumbers on and the grief piles up, we are in chronic stress. Over time, our stress hormones will steal from our sex hormones and will deplete our brain chemicals in attempts to seek balance,” explained Sell.
“We could then feel fatigued, overwhelmed, irritable, have trouble sleeping, and more. Once this cascade of events occurs, our immune system will also be weakened, something that we absolutely do not need to happen during a pandemic.”
While the death of a loved one is always tragic, losing someone during the pandemic comes with its own challenges.
Not being able to be with a loved one in the hospital during their last days and not being able to hold services once they pass is difficult.
“People can’t fly in and see each other and hug and comfort each other. The whole element has been ripped out of the memorial service now, so people don’t get the love and strength they need to move forward,” said Wortman.
Social isolation adds to the stress of grieving.
“One of the things that’s so helpful for those who have lost a loved one is the presence of those who love them, and that means physical presence and physical contact, so this main coping strategy that’s known to be effective for grief isn’t possible now,” Wortman added.
Collective stress and loss felt by society also makes it more difficult for those grieving. Because everyone is feeling stress and loss from the pandemic, Wortman says many people don’t have energy left to support others.
“One woman told me, ‘My daughter used to check up on me every few days, and now my husband has died, but she has her kids home from school, and her husband lost his job, and she simply can’t check up on me,’” Wortman said.
Knowing how to show support is challenging too, especially if the cause of death is COVID-19. Because of the nature of COVID-19, Wortman says people often say things that don’t come across as supportive, such as the following:
- Did he wear a mask?
- Did she have a preexisting condition?
- Did he practice social distancing?
- Where do you think she got it?
- You should feel lucky she lived as long as she did.
- So many people are dying, so at least you’re not alone.
“Of course, a lot of this is driven from the fact that people don’t want to get COVID, so they want to know how the person contracted it. However, saying these things is not supportive, and only makes the person feel worse,” Wortman explained.
Comments that invite further expression of feelings, such as, “This must be very painful for you” or “I’d like to understand it better” are more supportive, she points out.
Helen Rogers Pridgen, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, agrees, noting to keep in mind the person, not their cause of death.
“In the search for words, an expression as simple as, ‘I am sorry for your loss, and I want you to know you are in my thoughts’ or ‘I am sorry you are hurting — I want you to know you are not alone’ can be heard and felt when expressed sincerely,” she told Healthline.
Calling or sending a card or a meal are ways to be present with those grieving, she added.
“Though you may be inclined to give them space during their grieving process, it’s important not to isolate them during a highly vulnerable time in their life,” said Pridgen.
While grief may come in different forms this holiday season, the following are ways to cope.
1. Plan ahead
Wortman recommends being proactive about the holidays. If you plan to see people, she suggests thinking about different scenarios that could happen, so you don’t get stuck in an uncomfortable situation.
“For example, if you are going to a small gathering, think ahead about telling the host you might not be able to stay the whole time rather than announcing you have to leave in the middle of the party. This way you can get through it without feeling worse,” she said.
Planning ahead also puts you in control.
“Everything is so out of control when you lose someone, and right now the world feels out of control. This can be a little speck of light that makes you feel like you can figure out what you want to do and [actually] do it,” Wortman said.
2. Memorialize before or after
Rather than honoring your loved one during holiday celebrations, plan a special way of honoring them before or after.
For example, Wortman suggests having everyone write a statement about what they loved about the person and reading it aloud virtually or outside at a meaningful place. Taking toys to a local hospital in honor of a child who’s passed is another idea.
“Each family will come up with something that feels special to them. The point is that honoring them before or after the holidays helps [alleviate] feeling bad about not doing so on the holiday, as well as helps from trying to feel happy on the holiday as you’re honoring the loss of someone. This pushes that all out of the equation,” Wortman said.
3. Create new traditions
While some people find comfort in keeping their usual traditions, others may find it too difficult to.
“If holding to longstanding traditions proves too painful, consider developing new family traditions,” suggested Pridgen. “There’s no right or wrong way to spend the holidays — it’s what works best for you and your family. It is OK to take a year off from your usual traditions and decide next year if you will resume them.”
This also applies if the grief you are feeling is because you can’t be with your family or friends for the holiday due to the pandemic or other reasons.
“It is a reaction to just let the day pass; but instead, try to celebrate on your own. Connect with your family and friends through the phone or Facetime. Make sure you include a family tradition in your own home that will bring the holidays alive,” said Sell.
4. Scale back
Because grief can rob you of emotional and physical energy, Wortman recommends cutting back on holiday tasks such as baking, sending cards, decorating or putting up a tree, if they feel like chores.
“Cutting back helps us focus on what’s most important, like sharing connections with people and telling them what they mean to us. Sometimes those other activities are not as rewarding and can pull you away and make you feel scattered,” she explained.
5. Feel your feelings
Because grief is a process without a timeline and without linear events, Sell says allow yourself to feel your emotions as they come.
“Flow with the emotions that arise,” she said.
Wortman agrees and suggests accepting that feelings of anguish are difficult to avoid during the holiday season.
“Do not expect too much of yourself, and recognize that you are doing the best you can,” she added.
6. Fuel your body and brain
Identifying how loss is impacting your body is helpful for overcoming grief, says Sell.
“Our body sends us signals all the time. Recognize those signals as a stress response, and take a minute or more to engage in stress-reducing activities,” she said.
Exercising, sleeping, meditating, or talking to a friend can be helpful.
“Setting small daily health goals can give you a sense of accomplishment without feeling too burdensome. Tell others about your self-care plan so they can help support you,” said Pridgen.
Stabilizing your blood sugar throughout the day by eating protein every 2 to 3 hours is another way to manage stress, notes Sell.
“This will reduce some of the overall stress load on your body. It will also keep you in your thinking brain and out of your emotional brain more often. Additionally, protein is the basic fuel for all of your feel-good chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine,” she explained.
7. Seek professional help
If the grief you experience is overwhelming and unremitting, reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in grief and loss.
Sell says support groups and social media groups have also been helpful to her clients during the pandemic.
“Seek professional help if you can’t seem to move through the grief or if the grief causes excessive symptoms that don’t enable you to live the life you want,” said Sell.