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Grieving during the holidays is an especially gut-wrenching experience. It often leaves us feeling lonely in ways we never imagined, wondering how the rest of the world can celebrate while ours feels shattered.
Whether you’re grieving the death of a loved one, work struggles, health crises, or anything else, parts of the holidays can be extremely difficult times. When I experienced infertility and recurrent miscarriage, I wasn’t at all prepared for the immense grief that would overtake me during the holidays.
My first Christmas after miscarriage was one of the worst experiences of my life. But no matter what holidays you celebrate, you’ll likely find yourself struggling with getting through the holidays after loss or other grief.
While I can’t make the grief you’re experiencing go away (trust me, I wish I could), I can walk you through my experience grieving during the holidays and tell you what I learned during the process.
Consider this me, holding your hand as we stumble through the rocky path of coping with grief during the holidays together.
My Story: Infertility and Miscarriage During the Holidays
As the Holiday season of 2015 approached, I had just had my first miscarriage, a blighted ovum, following a year-and-a-half of trying to conceive.
One of my closest friends from college, Whitney, reached out to me, as she had had back-to-back miscarriages, ait was like coping with loss during a time when people expect you to celebrate.
I felt blindsided by the depth of my misery, unable to understand how anyone could possibly celebrate. I certainly didn’t know why they expected me to celebrate with them.
Setting boundaries with friends and family members is essential here, so we’ll address that. I promise.
As you’re reading this, there’s something I want you to know. We all have so many reasons to grieve this year. 2020 has been a bitch. Whether you’re grieving miscarriage and infertility like I was, or you’re grieving another loss, or even the loss of your traditional holiday structure, your feelings are valid.
Don’t compare your journeys. Don’t compare your joys. And dear God, don’t compare your grief.
Why Are the Holidays So Hard When Dealing With Grief?
The holidays, no matter what you celebrate, are so hard when you’re grieving. After all, they’re a time when you’re “supposed” to be happy. But celebrating can feel like the last thing in the world you want to do.
Escapism is a common response.
That Christmas, I wanted nothing more than to pretend the holidays didn’t exist. The holiday season amplified my grief. I couldn’t pretend to celebrate and feel “normal” when my chest felt heavy and the whole world looked gray.
I decided I wanted to go to Prague. But let me be clear about something. It wasn’t actually Prague that I wanted, but the idea of a place far away where I could escape from the reality of my life and loss. I could’ve found the same kind of escapism by skipping Christmas day and watching romantic Hallmark movies all day.
How you escape it isn’t the point. The point is that you want to be anywhere but where people expect you to celebrate.
My Escapism Fantasy Was Prague
It wasn’t about Prague. It was about escapism. And Prague, for whatever reason, is what my mind latched onto.
Because it felt far away, for sure. And cold, which seemed appropriate.
In Atlanta, with moderate weather and fires and good central HVAC, I think of Christmas as a warm time. Of course, most of my visions of it are indoors, but I hear and smell crackling fires and feel their warmth, along with the coffee or hot chocolate that’s in my hand.
But my heart felt cold. Prague is COLD.
My vision of Prague was full of Christmas celebrations and markets, and yet not the Christmas I was used to at all.
To me, Prague would be crowded with people buried under so many layers of clothing that I could hide among the crowd, practically invisible, perhaps disappearing even to myself.
That’s what grieving during the holidays meant to me. Wanting to disappear and never once be merry or bright.
Family man that he is, Husband wasn’t interested in my European Christmas escape plan.
I didn’t push the issue. I didn’t realize that my goal wasn’t an extravagant European getaway, but rather the desire to remove myself from holiday celebrations.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I had worked to convince him of just how badly I needed to not do the rigmarole of celebration. This is where setting boundaries becomes to important.
Choosing What to Attend & What Not To
Can I just take a second, please, and give you permission to be selfish during your holiday in grief?
Certainly, remember who else is grieving. If you lost a family member, then your family is mourning too. If you lost a pregnancy, or an embryo, or a living child, then your partner (if you have one) is certainly also grieving. Siblings, if there are any, are grieving. Grandparents might be grieving.
But the holidays tend to be times of tremendous obligation. I want to release you from those obligations this year.
Here are the questions I recommend asking to decide if an event is really worth attending when you’re grieving during the holidays:
- How does the idea of attending this event make me feel?
- How aligned are my fears with the likely reality?
- Will there be nosey friends and family members at the event who will potentially make the experience harder for me?
- Will there be supportive people at the event who will understand my grief and stay by my side if I need them?
- Is this something I can easily excuse myself from if I need to?
- Will anyone or anything at this event likely trigger my grief?
- Is anyone else at the event grieving too?
When deciding whether to attend an event that you’d typically feel obligated to join, think about yourself and what that experience will likely be like for you.
Yes, it still helps to consider others, especially if someone else there is also grieving. But ultimately, the goal this year is just to get through, and you have to take care of yourself.
If you feel like you’ll be triggered, you’ll struggle, and it won’t be easy to leave, you may disappoint some people, but you have my permission to not go.
How to Set Boundaries with Grieving During the Holidays
While it may hurt people’s feelings when you don’t attend certain events that you’d normally attend, your goal is to take care of yourself, and setting boundaries is key.
This can involve a few things:
- Subjects you are and are not willing to discuss
- People you are and are not willing to see
- Foregoing certain events to make emotional space for others
- Telling others your plans without asking their permission
One of the biggest mistakes I made during the Thanksgiving and Christmas after my first miscarriage was asking if my needs could be attended to instead of insisting on it.
I knew what events I didn’t want to attend, but instead of saying, “I simply don’t have the capacity this year. I’m going to stay home and watch Hallmark movies,” I instead asked, “Do you think people will be upset if I miss this event?”
Here’s a hint. The answer to that question is always yes.
When you’re grieving, communicate your needs, and be firm in doing so.
What I should’ve said is, “I’m sorry Husband, and mom and dad, and Husband’s family, for upsetting our balance, but I simply cannot handle our usual Christmas traditions this year. Continue on without me, and if I find myself wishing I were there, I’ll show up for a little while. But my plan is to stay home.”
5 Tips Surviving Grief During the Holidays
1. State What You Need
Here’s the deal, if you feel like you need to get away from the normalcy of a traditional, family-based holiday celebration, do it. It might not be make everyone happy, but you get to be a bit “selfish” this year.
And it’s actually not selfish, even if it feels that way and even if others accuse you of that. It’s self-preservation.
Find the words to be candid about what you need.
If I could give you any advice and know you’d hear it, it’d be to put your foot down. Be stubborn about what you need.
Keep in mind that going away for the holiday (or watching movies alone at home) is not establishing a new normal. It’s simply caring for yourself this year. Right now, all that matters is that you get through this year.
Not everyone needs this kind of escape, and if you don’t, good for you. But know that there will be hard moments during major celebrations, and you may want to build in temporary escape plans.
For me, it was going to the bathroom (and sitting, fully clothed, on a closed toilet, just to get away.)
2. Let Go of Guilt
Unfortunately, I gave in and didn’t try hard enough to convince Husband that I desperately needed to GET THE HELL OUT OF ATLANTA for the holidays.
I spent Christmas Eve with my parents, watched my niece open her gifts on Christmas morning, and spent Christmas Day at Husband’s parents’ house.
I felt guilty every second of it.
I felt guilty for not enjoying the holidays due to my grief.
Everything was just like it always had been, except the giant, gaping hole in my heart, left by the baby who had recently been in my womb.
I know it’s hard, but don’t feel guilty about whatever thoughts and emotions find their way to you, and trust me, some of them may be very strange.
You’re doing your best. Whatever emotions you’re feeling, they aren’t coming from a rational place. They’re coming from a broken heart and a mind that’s trying to protect you. It’s okay .
Letting yourself feel this guilt, and then letting it pass, is the only way you’re going to get through situations like this.
Remember that grief during the holidays is not how you’ll always experience the holidays. This year, or these years, are outliers in your lifetime of holidays.
Your guilt is the same. It’s an outlier. It won’t always be there, so let it go.
3. Take Small Mental Health Breaks
When you are experiencing grief during the holidays, take a break. Away from the noise. Away from the people who are somehow able to celebrate.
Likely, you’ll be in a fog, desperately trying to forget how different this holiday could’ve looked for you.
I had planned a surprise to announce my pregnancy on Christmas.
But my baby didn’t make it. I had surgery. I was healing. I as grieving.
And everyone else’s worlds were still turning.
How the hell could their worlds still turn?
Give others a break for not understanding, but plan your small escapes.
Find some chores to do that will help take your mind off your grief. Go for a walk by yourself. Find a room where you can remove yourself from everyone else’s merriment.
During my Christmas in grief, I was shocked to realize that I spent hours doing dishes completely by myself.
As I got up from the dining room table to go start the dishes, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I don’t remember continually telling everyone to stop offering to help me because I wanted to do them alone, but that’s what I’m told I did.
I wouldn’t normally be excited at all about doing the dishes by myself, but I needed space and this chore provided it.
Doing the dishes helped occupy the hours until I could go home and fall apart on my bathroom floor like I’d wanted to do all day.
4. Ask for Help
You don’t want to break down in the middle of a “celebration,” but sometimes you simply cannot keep it together.
If you’re a weepy basket case like I was, it’s times like this that you need to reach out to someone close to you.
During the Christmas from hell, I didn’t reach out to anyone, and I should have. Luckily, I found that outlet in my mom.
I knew my mom felt something had been more than “off” with me all day.
Then out of the blue, she looked me in the eye and sternly but lovingly said, “You’re not doing this again next year.“
I don’t know exactly what she meant, and I’ll never ask. But I’m pretty sure it was her way of saying that she wished I was in Prague. Or anywhere but there.
Apparently, you can’t hide that kind of suffering.
All I wanted was for my baby to be in my belly, not in Heaven. All my mom wanted was for her baby to be anywhere other than grief Hell.
I wish I had reached out to my mom and not waited for her to notice my pain. The nice thing about her noticing is that she just kind of knew that I needed her. Having her understand and validate my grief by acknowledging it helped me get through an unbearable day.
It also helped me realized that my desire to escape was completely acceptable.
5. Know that Grief Won’t Always Be Your Center
If you choose to go to events to celebrate the holidays, the day might feel like years. But our brains repress the most painful moments, so it’s likely that you will remember it in sound bytes, unsure of the order of things or how a full day really passed.
I remember the haze, the staring out the window in front of the sink as I scrubbed my anger out on those dishes.
I was focused on one world: my Hell, not the celebration everyone else thought I was a part of.
I remember finally going home, after what felt like the longest day of my life, and falling to pieces. I wanted to scream at Husband, furiously: “WHY THE HELL DID YOU MAKE ME DO THIS?”
But I didn’t. I knew he didn’t understand. I knew I didn’t work to make him understand. And I know now that he didn’t make me do anything. I made my choice, and it was the wrong choice for me.
But he understands now.
And what he understands now is that on that day, grief was my center. But what I didn’t know is that it wouldn’t always be that way.
Words of Love To Everyone Experiencing Grief During the Holidays
I want to tell you, my grieving reader, something that should become a sort of mantra for you.
And it’s not just for you, but for everyone experiencing grief during the holidays:
Grief will not always be your center, either.
It will get better, even if it feels like your life is ending.
Find what you need to do for yourself right now and do not feel guilty about it.
If I ever again experience this kind of grief during the Holidays, damn what anyone else thinks. I’m going to Prague.
Decide what you need emotionally and set boundaries with others. If skipping events will help you, give yourself permission to be “selfish,” recognizing that it’s really self-preservation.
Ask them directly how you can best support them–whether they’d prefer to skip traditional plans, want individual time with you, etc. Acknowledging that the holiday might be hard for them and giving them the opportunity to talk about it (without forcing them) is the best thing you can do.
You can use traditions to remember and memorialize your child, but you may not feel like celebrating, and that’s okay too. Decide what will be best for your heart and plan your holiday accordingly. It may look very different than usual.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.