5 Ways to Manage Holiday Grief

Learn how to cope with feelings of loss and identify signs of holiday depression

Older couple looking through a photo album

Learn how to cope with feelings of loss and identify signs of holiday depression

Though the holiday season is usually filled with joyous occasions, these traditions, gatherings and activities can bring about painful memories of loved ones we’ve lost. The death or declining health of someone, the loss of your own health or the end of an important relationship, such as a marriage, can trigger difficult feelings of grief, sadness, guilt or regret.


Grief is a normal, healthy response to loss, says Hessam Khalili Tabrizi, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Solana Beach. As you process loss, you may have different feelings at different times. They may never disappear but will lessen with time as you work through them. 


“It is normal to relive some of your feelings of grief on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other special times,” Dr. Tabrizi says. “Healing from a loss involves coming to terms with it and the meaning of the loss in your life.”

Understanding the five stages of grief

People typically process grief in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This can last up to four years; it doesn’t necessarily progress in a set order, and certain stages may recur. 


If you’re having trouble with the process at any point, ask for help from trusted friends, family, clergy, a counselor or therapist, support groups or your doctor, says Dr. Tabrizi.


Also, talk to your doctor if problems eating, sleeping or concentrating remain after the first couple of weeks. These can be signs of depression. Your doctor can help you work through your feelings, identify steps and start to feel some relief.

How to manage grief and the holidays

Even if you’re not struggling with depression, the holiday season can induce reminders of the people you miss most deeply. The following tips can help you cope with challenging moments, including holiday depression, and perhaps create positive new memories.

1. Identify potential hurdles

Visualize your holiday season, noting the places, situations or dates that might trigger your grief. Knowing what to watch for can help you plan ahead. Since feelings come in waves, anticipate a mix of good days and bad days. Take it one day at a time and know that it’s fine to decline invitations to events that might be especially painful.

2. Have a support plan in place

Pre-arrange a few phone calls or visits with friends and family, or sessions with a bereavement counselor before the holidays kick into full swing. You might feel more secure knowing your support system is standing by.

3. Start a new ritual

Planning a ritual in memory of your loved one can help you feel more in control of the upcoming holidays and help provide an outlet for your grief. Consider placing a special decoration in your home, planting a tree in honor of your loved one, volunteering your time or money to a charity your loved one admired, lighting candles in memory of your beloved or reminiscing with photo albums and mementos.

4. Do things differently

It can be very stressful and painful to maintain familiar holiday traditions without your loved one. You might decide to skip certain traditions, alter your typical holiday plans or try something completely new. 

5. Accept generosity

Know that friends and family members often want to step in and offer assistance. Say yes, and take comfort knowing you’re surrounded by people who support and care for you.

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.