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How Do I Handle Grief During The Holidays? Here's What Experts Say

An overhead shot of a dinner table featuring 10 white plates filled with food. Four plates have salad and the rest have sweet potatoes and other dishes. Hands enter the frame with utensils as people eat.
No one wants their holiday meal to devolve into a bitter argument, so we’re here to help you navigate this potentially tricky conversation.
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For many people, Thanksgiving means gathering with family and friends to share a meal and spend time together. But the past year and a half has brought loss for many of us, which can mean that family get-togethers are laced with grief in ways they perhaps haven’t been before.

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What Experts Say About Grieving During The Holidays

We turned to the experts to talk about holidays and grief; how to navigate this time of the year if you’ve lost someone or something, how to work with family and friends so everyone feels as comfortable as possible, and how to help kids who might be suffering. Here’s what they told us.

Don’t Isolate 

It might be tempting to stay home and avoid people or reminders of loss, but Sharon Reiner, an L.A.-based clinical social worker, said that could ultimately delay the healing process.

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“It's understandable that people might feel reluctant to be joining family gatherings,” she said. “It’s normal that the first year of grieving is going to be very challenging … [but] isolating is never a great idea, especially during the holidays.”

It’s not just that you might wind up feeling even more lonely; staying home prevents a grieving person from thinking about how they might begin to move forward, if that’s something they’re prepared to do.

“One of the tasks of mourning is they need to start looking and [ask], what is life going to look like?” said Reiner. “How am I going to keep that person connected to me, but at the same time, how am I going to build that new life?”

Plan, Plan, Plan

Once you have an idea of who you might spend holidays with, be deliberate in what you choose to do. If a specific location reminds you of a loved one you’ve lost, for instance, perhaps you could meet in a different place.

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Additionally, give some thought to a friend or family member who might be a good support person, and reach out to them in advance of the holidays to let them know you may need some extra help.

If doing the usual holiday gathering simply feels like too much, said Reiner, consider a different activity this year. Volunteer, adopt another family who is in need, or spend time with a different friend or family group.

“The person wants to put in a lot of planning to think about what might come up,” said Reiner. “What we want to do is see how much he can control the circumstances and figure out what would work for them.”

Take Baby Steps

You may not be up for a six-hour Thanksgiving dinner and TV marathon, and that’s okay, Reiner said. Think about what you can realistically handle, and go from there: “The person might choose to go [to a holiday gathering] and say, I’m going to give it 15 minutes and see how it goes.”

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If a whole family is grieving, it’s important not to push people who might be coping with their emotions at different speeds and in different ways. Talk to relatives in advance about whether they’re comfortable talking about the lost loved one, whether they’d prefer not to, and how a happy medium might be reached.

“Take the temperature of the people in the room,” Reiner said. “See what people can handle, [and] communicate with people ahead of time.”

Be Open With Kids

Children are much more aware of what’s going on than adults give them credit for, said Dr. Samuel Girguis, an L.A.-based licensed clinical psychologist. With that in mind, it’s important for children to know that they can talk about what they’re feeling, whether it’s around grief and loss, political divisiveness, or something else.

“Younger kids are sponges,” said Girguis. “They understand the pandemic, what is going on, they understand the political divisiveness. To be able to talk with them about those things at the developmentally appropriate level is huge.”

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Kids are paying attention to how adults react, and one thing they notice is whether or not adults are being open — whether they’re acknowledging the loss, or trying to sweep it under the rug.

“[It’s] giving permission, it’s acknowledging to the child that, yes, we recognize that our loved one is not here with us anymore … and giving permission to feel both sad about that, as well as perhaps happy that everybody else is gathered together,” Girguis said. “Giving the kids some amount of choice, agency — to know that the invitation is there [to talk].”

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