Why Acknowledging Our COVID-19 Holiday Grief Is Important

By Lauren Presutti

The holiday season brings a lot of excitement with gift shopping, preparing family recipes, enjoying bright lights and decorations, and spreading love among each other in numerous ways. But for some people, the holidays can also bring feelings of grief, loneliness, difficult memories from the past, or general feelings of chaos that make us feel overwhelmed and scattered. This 2020 holiday season may be especially overwhelming because of COVID-19. We are probably going to have to do a lot of things differently – and modifying some of our traditions can add additional stress and anxiety that we may not be prepared for. This makes it especially important to acknowledge our emotions and work through these feelings so we can make the most of this strange – but still meaningful – holiday season.

We must allow ourselves to feel disappointed, sad, or angry with our circumstances if these emotions surface. It is important to sit with the uncomfortable and potentially distressing thoughts and feelings, even though we dislike what is happening. You will likely find more relief by getting things verbally out in the open (“I’m feeling really upset about the holidays plans this year”), rather than fighting against how you feel.  Sometimes when we talk about coping skills, people assume we have to distract ourselves and dissociate away from our negative feelings because we want those feelings to go away. While distraction can be helpful in brief moments of high stress, it would be unhealthy to rely on distraction as a long-term approach to managing emotions. A pattern of fighting against how we really feel might spiral into a trap of denying how we feel. We may pretend like everything is okay when we are actually suffering. We may not want to admit to even ourselves that we are feeling grief this holiday season. We may be telling ourselves that we are not allowed to be upset or that we shouldn’t feel this way. This is a problem because it will begin to feel very invalidating. It will likely feel like we are dismissing ourselves – and when we do that, we are actually amplifying our internal distress in the long run.

In other words, denying how we feel may feel good for a few minutes, but over time, we are going to start noticing the distress and resentment building up inside of us. If you have ever heard the phrase, don’t bottle up your emotions, that’s exactly what I mean. We don’t want to be creating a deep internal reserve of our feelings because in the long run, those emotions are going to become more and more intense. So if you are feeling disappointed, hurt, frustrated, or generally upset about the changes during this COVID-19 holiday season, it’s important to acknowledge how you feel.

For many of us, this will feel familiar because we already have been experiencing grief throughout the pandemic. We have lost our sense of normalcy, our routines, we have missed experiences, and we have been missing out on close contact with people in our lives. Thankfully, many of us have established a new normal over the last several months and have found ways to cope. Now with the holiday season approaching, it might feel like we are suddenly re-experiencing loss all over again – the loss of a “typical holiday season.” If you are starting to notice feelings of grief resurface, be gentle with yourself. Try to engage in whatever activities you find soothing, such as opening up to family and friends, sharing your struggles of grief with other people feeling the same way, talking about the things that you miss, or maybe even joining a virtual support group or starting one among your close friends.

The thing about grief, is that it never happens in a straight line. When we’re grieving, we are going to have a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns, we might move forward then backwards, and get all turned around. It is normal to feel okay one day, and then have a bad day, and then feel better, and then feel sad again. You may find yourself grieving the loss of a special holiday tradition that you cannot take part in this year due to the pandemic, but the next day you may feel excited about a new tradition that you can start indoors at home. It is also completely okay if you feel sad again later. Remind yourself that grief happens in all different ways and it looks different for every person.

I also want to acknowledge that the holidays in general – regardless of COVID-19 – can elicit feelings of grief for many people. If you are someone that experiences grief during the holidays due to the loss of a loved one or painful memories from the past, it’s even more important to practice self-care and self-compassion during this holiday season. Take the time to use your resources, like working with a therapist or joining a support group, doing activities that you find soothing, intimately connecting with people you trust, honoring your loved ones who you are missing or reflecting on special memories from the past in any way that you can. It’s especially important to take extra care of yourself if you are prone to experiencing grief during the holiday season because this year the losses associated with COVID-19 might make your grief feel more intense. Remember how important it is to be accepting of yourself, acknowledge how you are feeling, and ask for help if you need it.

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