How to Cope With Grief at Christmas

If you've lost a loved one, Christmas can increase your feelings of sadness, emptiness, and sense of loss. We explore some ways to cope with grief during the holidays.
How to Cope With Grief at Christmas
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 10 February, 2023

The Christmas holidays inevitably arrive, both for those who welcome them and those who don’t. The streets are decorated, the moods of those around us change, and certain memories become particularly intense, especially those that remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. In fact, nostalgia can become a dense fog that seems to cover everything. Indeed, dealing with grief at Christmas isn’t easy at all.

In reality, there’s no magic, unique, and universal recipe for dealing with grief at this time of year. Every bereaved individual has their own experiences and will need to put in place different coping mechanisms to get through this difficult time.

However, if you’re in this position, it’s important to remember that you don’t owe anything to anyone and that looking after yourself is a priority right now. Whether you need to isolate yourself or prefer to participate in the festivities, make sure you make your decisions without worrying about what others will think of you. Right now, that’s irrelevant.

Grief at Christmas and its associated emotions

As we mentioned earlier, Christmas can be especially complicated if you’re grieving. You may have written a narrative that allows you to reconstruct your emotional state for your usual day-to-day routine; a valuable story, but also a really fragile one. However, its power becomes insufficient when stimuli occur that evoke memories of your lost loved one. They intensify your feelings of emptiness.

As a rule, you’ll feel overwhelmingly sad. You might also feel apathetic as if absolutely nothing is enjoyable. In addition, you may feel guilty for spoiling the fun of others around you. However, you just can’t join in with their celebrations.

This unfulfilled desire may also make you feel helpless or irritable and even angry.

mourning woman crying
Expressing how we feel and respecting the feelings of others is essential in grieving situations at Christmas.

Ways to deal with grief at Christmas

When you’re faced with this kind of situation, you tend to unconsciously adopt certain strategies that don’t always help:

Escaping and isolating yourself

One of the most common reactions is to try to distance yourself from everything that’s even slightly reminiscent of Christmas. For instance, the decorations, the carols, the traditions… everything that reminds you of the person you’ve lost. In fact, you may try to shut down your senses and try to make the festivities pass as soon as possible.

If this is the case, you won’t decorate your house and avoid Christmas music, shopping for gifts, and family gatherings. Instead, you prefer to stay at home, isolated from the outside world and from the joy that seems to be all around, yet feels a world away from you.

Acting as if nothing has happened

On the other hand, maybe you’ve decided to carry on as usual and to behave as if you haven’t suffered a loss at all. If so, you carry on the old traditions out of sheer inertia, go to social gatherings, and force yourself not to remember your loved one during the festive period in order to maintain your composure. Somehow, you manage to repress the pain that the holidays arouse while trying to convince yourself and others that all is well.

Creating new traditions

A middle option is to choose to create new traditions for this time of year. This means that, since the previous ones are too reminiscent of your loved one, and the idea of isolating yourself sounds sad and painful, you may decide to generate new plans for Christmas.

For example, you might choose to travel, spend the holidays with different people, or introduce other kinds of changes to your traditional celebrations.

Advice if you’re grieving at Christmas

Although the above reactions are extremely common, they’re neither the best nor the desired ones. In fact, research has proved that, of the various kinds of coping strategies, those that are suppressive or reactive (avoiding or acting impulsively) only increase discomfort. On the contrary, reflection, the expression of emotions, and the search for social support helps the individual alleviate their discomfort and move on.

Bearing this in mind, here are some guidelines that you can follow if you’re dealing with grief this Christmas

1. Reflect on what you want

As we mentioned earlier, grief is a highly personal experience and you have the right to feel it and experience it at your own pace and in your own way. Therefore, firstly, think about how you’d like to spend Christmas.

Decide if you want to go to social gatherings or not. Do you want to decorate, buy gifts, and participate in others’ Christmas plans or not? Or, do you want to introduce some changes in your traditions? Give yourself permission to decide what you feel is right, and communicate it to the people around you so that they can respect your decisions.

2. Lean on your loved ones

Even if you prefer not to participate in the festivities, it’s important that you don’t isolate yourself completely during this season. You need to be able to express and share the intense emotions you may feel. A phone call or a quiet chat with someone close can be extremely useful in this regard.

3. Plan and ask for help

If you decide to join in with the parties and gatherings, you may not be able to do it in the same way as in other years, as your circumstances have changed. For example, maybe you’d prefer not to host any gatherings in your home this year, or perhaps you need someone to accompany you to do the shopping or put up the decorations.

Don’t feel pressured to handle everything. Allow yourself to go at your own pace. Likewise, accept the company and the practical and emotional support of those who love you.

4. Practice self-care

It’s important that you’re aware of your needs and feelings. Make sure you get enough rest, eat correctly, and get outside so you can move around and be in contact with nature. These simple actions will have a positive impact on your mood and help you cope with your grief.

Also, allow yourself to cry if you need to, breathe deeply when you need to calm down, and don’t stay in any place or situation if you don’t want to. Prioritize yourself.

Woman with closed eyes outdoors
Self-care involves reflecting on how you’re experiencing your grief and the loss of your loved one.

5. Give your loved one space

Finally, although you may not feel like doing it, it could be positive to find a way to remember and honor the memory of your loved one during these holidays. You can create a small tradition or ritual to perform alone or in the company of others that helps you feel closer to them or to give thanks for the times you shared together.

Remembering anecdotes, listening to your favorite song, preparing the dish you used to cook, or placing a photograph of them on the table when you’re sitting around it with the rest of your family are all good options. However, it’s entirely your decision to choose how you want to carry out any tribute.

Be patient with yourself

In short, the most important thing is that you try to give yourself time and don’t demand too much of yourself or blame yourself for any decisions you make. There’s no right or wrong way to act. Whatever you feel you need is okay.

If pangs of grief appear unexpectedly, allow yourself to go through them. Above all, go at your own pace. Mourning is a process. If it’s recent, you mustn’t rush it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bermejo, J. C., Magaña, M., Villacieros, M., Carabias, R., & Serrano, I. (2012). Estrategias de afrontamiento y resiliencia como factores mediadores de duelo complicado. Revista de psicoterapia22(88), 85-95.
  • Márquez, S. (1995). Beneficios psicológicos de la actividad física. Revista de psicología general y aplicada: Revista de la Federación Española de Asociaciones de Psicología48(1), 185-206.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.