Handling the Holidays After Loss

by Jess Keefe November 15, 2019

Losing a friend or family member to addiction is like a layer cake of pain. There’s the usual grief experience as the base, of course—but then on top, there’s layer after layer of complicated feelings about the exact way in which your loved one died. There’s the shock and the self-blame. The anger and frustration. The shame and the fear of judgment.

Sounds delicious, right?

This layer cake is particularly unappetizing during the holiday season, when all you really want is to chow down on some figgy pudding like everybody else. During the holidays, it can feel like you’re surrounded by perfect, happy families drinking cocoa and playing touch football and making snow angels. And when you’re hurting, all that in-your-face cheer is enough to turn anybody into a Grinch.

I lost my little brother to an overdose in 2015. In the years since, I’ve learned that losing a loved one never stops hurting. The feelings change and evolve, but the pain is always there. No matter how long it’s been since your loss, there’s no doubt that the holiday season is especially hard. But there are ways to get through it—and even enjoy parts of it. Just remember a few key things.

It’s okay to not be okay.

During this season of mass merriment, grief can be especially disorienting. “Why don’t I feel all merry and bright?” you may find yourself wondering. “Why don’t I want to celebrate and spread good cheer? What are all these people so happy about, anyway?”

Be nice to yourself when you feel this way. Remember that it’s okay to not feel particularly festive. It’s okay to be sad, angry, or even resentful. Be aware of how you feel, and remember that it won’t last forever. Take the time you need to sit with those unpleasant thoughts and then move through them, rather than letting them suck you down. By respecting these not-so-great feelings, rather than attempting to silence or ignore them, you’ll also prevent yourself from lashing out or saying things you may regret later.

If you’re struggling, let people know.

Don’t choke down bad feelings like so many chunks of overcooked turkey. Don’t try to power through your sadness for the sake of the family gift swap. You may think you’re sparing people drama, but in reality, you’ll feel worse in the long run.

I understand the impulse to just grin and bear it. No one wants to be a downer, especially around the holidays. But remember: Your feelings matter, and they’re important to your loved ones. No one would want you to suffer in silence. So if you’re having a hard time, raise your hand. Reach out to people you love and trust. Tell them how you’re feeling, and you may be surprised by the love and support you receive in return.

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