Five Ways to Manage Your Grief This Holiday Season
It’s the word I pulled during a game of Taboo in 2011, exactly one week before Easter Sunday. I had recently moved to southern California for a journalism fellowship and was renting a room from an English professor and her husband.
Surrounded by students from my landlord’s honors English class, I drew a blank on ways to describe the Greco-Roman demigod and an awkward silence ensued as the timer ran its course.
What the group didn’t know, and what I had no desire to tell them, is that I was grieving the loss of the man I thought I’d spend my life with. The following day marked the one-year anniversary of his death and I was dreading it.
In a new place far from home and around strangers, I clammed up. Anniversaries and holidays are difficult, and—though we don’t often get to decide how or where we observe them—there are ways to manage painful milestones.
Phone a Friend
Fortunately, my lost love and I shared a lot of mutual friends. As a pastor’s kid and devout Christian, he and I attended church together and spent every Easter together in the years before his passing. This makes holidays all the more difficult.
But it also gave me a network of people I could talk to about Josh and all the good times we shared. I even learned things and stories about Josh I didn’t know prior to him no longer being with us
When you’re far from home and apart from loved ones (especially those who share a mutual relationship with your lost loved one) phone calls are a lifetime. So, pick up your cell and start talking—or don’t and just hang on the line.
Open Up About Your Loss
When you do feel like talking about your loss, find someone you trust and confide in them about your story—perhaps with someone who has been through something similar. Talking with someone who hasn’t been through traumatic loss can be difficult.
There were times, for example, in the early months after Josh’s death when people’s reactions to my story were less than sympathetic. They couldn’t identify with my experience. People would say I was “still young,” or “It’s been a long time,” suggesting I should somehow be over the loss.
These types of reactions make it especially hard for a grieving person to open up about their loss. That was certainly the case for me. I didn’t think people would understand, and people certainly didn’t look at me and think “widow” or the unmarried equivalent.
Had I not opened up about Josh’s death, though, I wouldn’t have the relationship I have today with one of my dearest friends and, while everyone’s loss is unique, my friend and I bonded over our shared grief.
She lost her home and both her parents at a very young age, but taught me an important lesson: When you open up about your loss, you’ll either meet someone who simply hasn’t yet met “Grief” or you’ll meet your ride-or-die friend.
And the insensitive comments—you learn to let those slide off your back and give people grace because 1) “Grief” will inevitably come to meet them one day and 2) You’ve been through worse than a few insensitive comments. Better for people to try and connect than to say nothing at all.
Anticipate Your Schedule
While you can’t plan around painful interactions or comments, you can sometimes control where you are during painful milestones. Anticipate the painful holidays and anniversaries as best you can and bolster yourself. Have a loved one on speed dial and let them know you might call.
Schedule a day off work if you can afford to and aren’t saving your limited time off for when you’re completely incapacitated. This way, you spend those painful milestones on your own terms. Perhaps you can page through old photos or spend the day outside basking in Vitamin D.
Fortunately, the pandemic ushered in the golden age of remote and flexible work, and an added emphasis on maintaining one’s mental health. These improvements in the workplace will only serve to help those grieving and others in similarly difficult life circumstances.
Have an event coming up—maybe a friend’s wedding? Let the tears fall freely and don’t worry about what other people think. Chances are you won’t be able to hold back the tears anyway, nor should you. Instead, help erase the archaic social taboo of crying in public.
Set Aside Time
Crying is OK. Not crying is OK, too. Bottom line, give yourself permission to not be OK. As one author in a Harvard Business Review article that went viral during the initial months of the pandemic points out, one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that our grief is collective.
We all lost something, and more than 800,000 Americans lost their lives because of COVID-19 or saw their death hastened as a result of the virus. Those 800,000 souls touched a lot of other souls now grieving a loved one. We’re all in a similar boat, and that’s solace of sorts.
Because the grief experience is so widely shared, more people have a frame of reference for how a friend or neighbor may feel about his or her loss and, hopefully, an extra measure of compassion for those around them.
Likewise, have compassion for yourself and know it’s OK to grieve. In fact, set aside time to grieve. Assuming your daily obligations aren’t too great, prioritize daily private time to actively remember your loved one and the memories you share.
Help Someone in Need
Thinking back to the painful memories has merit, too. Though difficult, those memories give a person empathy and an extra measure of understanding and even urgency to help those who find themselves in a similar situation, even though—at the time—I was the one in need.
When I graduated college, for example, jobs were in short supply, especially in my home state of Rhode Island, which had the second-worst unemployment rate in the nation at the time, and I had a hefty student-loan bill—the grace period for which was fast approaching.
What’s more, after Josh’s death, the pressure to earn money did not ebb and, because Josh and I weren’t married, I wasn’t entitled to paid bereavement leave. I also hadn’t been at the company long enough to accrue more than a day’s vacation.
Things were grim, and I often felt powerless to change that. Losing Josh, however, did make me more aware of the needs around me, and the plight of friends or family members grieving the loss of a loved one or struggling to find work.
After scraping my way out of various temp-agency jobs and gaining a modest financial footing, donating to others helped give me purpose and enabled me to pay it forward on behalf of friends, family members and even acquaintances who helped me through a difficult time in life.
Josh’s death is a primary motivator in my desire to see tax laws around charitable giving reformed and made more inclusive, as I believe modest earners are some of the most insightful givers. On a granular level, everyday earners know who in their community is struggling.
Consequently, it’s my hope that—whether a person makes $40,000 a year or $400,000 a year— charitable giving is tax-advantaged for all, as philanthropy has the power to help those who fall between the cracks of the social safety net find their feet again.
Until then, know that embodying or describing someone who is strong doesn’t always look or sound like “Hercules.” Sometimes it looks like letting the tears flow or the clock run out, especially when you’re surrounded by strangers.