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  • Writer's pictureJana Rentzel

When Christmas Hurts

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

When we’re hurting, the holidays can really intensify our feelings of loneliness, sorrow, and grief. Whether we’re experiencing loss due to death, sickness, divorce, depression, estrangement, or unemployment, what used to be an exciting and fun time of year for us is now a constant and painful reminder of our loss.

It seems like everyone in the world is celebrating and having a good timewhile we’re overwhelmed with despair and sadness. Many of my clients tell me they wish they could simply crawl under a rock and not come out until after the first of the year.

So, aside from crawling under a rock, what can we do to make it through the holidays when we’re hurting?


One of the best ways to deal with the holidays after a loss is to plan in advance. In addition to lessening the likelihoodthat you’ll be caught off guard by difficult situations, advance planning also helps minimize the dread that you may be feeling about the holidays. It can be a huge relief to plan not only what you aregoing to do during the holidays, but also what you are NOTgoing to do!

And remember: when we’re going through very difficult times in our lives, even the smallest things can feel overwhelming and exhausting. So set careful limits on what you’re able to do this year.

Start by coming up with your “Don’t Do” list:

Decide in advance what parts of the holiday you’re just not up to this year. Simply crossing these things off your list can make the holidays feel much more manageable.

For example, the idea of putting up decorations this year might seem particularly distressing; perhaps your loved one is the one that always put up the Christmas tree before, and even thinking about putting up a tree this year can send you into an emotional tailspin.

Other things that may need to go by the wayside this year: sending out Christmas cards, planning/preparing a big meal, shopping for gifts…. Decide what you don't want to do.

Next, make your “To Do” list:

Plan what parts of the holidays you do want to participate in or think you may be up for. Maybe the Christmas Eve candlelight service, etc. Again, you decide.

Then, also come up with a “Try-Something-New” list:

This is a good time to try something new – so try to think outside the box a bit. Perhaps this is a good year to spend the holiday in a new place, doing something totally different.

Volunteer to help others; this can be a miraculous pain reliever. Think about serving a holiday meal at a shelter, the hospital, the Salvation Army, or church.

Once you have a plan, share it!

Share it with your family and friends. And be honest - tell them what you ARE up for doing during the holidays and what you’re NOT up for.

Ignore people who want to tell you what you “should” do for the holiday. Listen to yourself, trust yourself, communicate with your family, and do what works best for you.

What about all the Holiday parties and events? How can someone who is grieving a loss best respond to invitations?

Give yourself permission to say no!

Don’t feel obligated to say yes to every invitation. We worry so much about hurting other people’s feelings that it shuts down our ability to think through what’s in our best interest.

My advice: BE SELFISH. If you think you’re going to feel too sad, angry, jealous, or upset by seeing all your friends or other family members so dang merry and filled with holiday cheer, then you shouldn’t go.

And no – this isn’t a strategy for everything going forward; we can’t hole up forever. But the holidays can pack a really big wallop to us when we’re grieving and depressed, so it’s really important that we do whatever we can to take care of ourselves.

When you do decide to attend a holiday party…

Don’t get trapped! Always allow yourself the ability to bow out. You might feel up to attending an event when you accept the invitation, but the day of the party, you may feel totally different, and that’s perfectly okay. Simply acknowledge the emotional roller coaster that you’re currently on by saying something like this when rsvp’ing:

“Yes, I’m planning on coming, but please know that I may chicken out at the last minute.”

Alternatively, you can let your host know in advance that you will likely not be able to stay the entire time:

“Yes, thank you - I can come, but I’ll only be able to stay for a short time.”

People understand this when we’re honest on the front end. It sure beats doing what I used to do which was just to not show or to sneak out of the party early and hope no one saw me.

To this end, drive yourself or Uber so you can leave whenever you need or want to. Always have an out!

What if my family or friends try to twist my arm to do something?

When someone pressures you to go to an event that you don’t want to attend, have a pre-planned answer and stick to it:

“I really appreciate your invitation, but I’m just not up to it right now.”

Keep your answer simple – no need to explain or justify. And if necessary, repeat word for word what you’ve already said. Don’t get trapped by trying to elaborate or explain further.

And if you want to, you can suggest an alternative:

“I’d love to visit with you, but can we plan another time to get together when there won’t be so many people around?”

If you’re grieving the death of a loved one:

Bring your loved one with you (so to speak)! Others often avoid bringing up your loved one in a conversation with you, in fear that it will upset you. So relieve everyone of this fear by letting them know that you want to talk about your loved one and you want to hear their stories about him/her:

“I really wish _____ were here; this was his/her favorite time of year.”

This gives those around you the permission they may need, allowing the conversation to shift to a more genuine, meaningful level for everyone.

If the event is one with close family and friends:

Bring a candle and find a prominent place for it in the room. Share with everyone that you are lighting it to symbolize your loved one’s spiritual presence, and let it burn brightly for the duration of the event.

Ask each person to share a memory of your loved one or something they learned from him/her; share stories of your cherished times.

Share a moment of silence during your Christmas dinner in memory of your loved one; or propose a toast to them.

Put out a ‘memory stocking’ or ‘memory box’ where you and others can write down treasured memories of your loved one; then schedule a special time to read them together.

What are some ways that you can take care of YOU during the holidays?

Splurge on a holiday gift for yourself this year - and make it a good one!

Ask for help. This can be super hard if it isn’t your style, but it’s important. Asking others to help with things like cooking, shopping, or decorating can be a big relief.

Spend some time outside – take daily walks.

See a grief counselor. The holidays are especially tough, so this can be a very good time to get support from someone who can help you through this difficult time.

Make some quiet time for yourself. The holidays can be hectic, so carve out some time to journal, meditate, listen to music, read a book that helps you escape, binge-watch TV shows, etc.

In Giving, We Receive. Helping others can the very best pain reliever. Consider the following:

Make arrangements to spend some time during the holidays with someone who is alone; for example, someone else who has experienced a death or a divorce, someone without family nearby, someone in a nursing home or shelter. Take them a little something special, like cookies.

Volunteer to help serve a holiday meal at a shelter, hospital, the Salvation Army, or church.

Deliver cards or cookies to shut-ins or make encouraging phone calls to them.

And remember: crying is okay.  This time of year especially, who knows what may trigger a cry-fest. So don’t feel bad when you find yourself sobbing in the middle of Nordstrom because you see a gift your loved one would have liked, or their favorite song comes on over the loud speaker, or it looks like everyone else is merry and bright while you’re in the bottomless pit. It’s okay to cry, even in public. (Besides, this time of year, you can always disguise your tears and runny nose as a cold!)

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