Grief, Trauma and the Holiday Season

Why the holidays are so hard for grievers and trauma survivors

For many, the holiday season is a joyful time full of fun, get-togethers and celebration. However, for those who have experienced a loss or who have gone through something traumatic, the holidays can elicit a myriad of uncomfortable memories and emotions. 

The Impact of Grief on the Holidays

This may be the first Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or other important holiday you’ll be celebrating without your loved one. The loss can feel palpable. Maybe you had a specific tradition such as mom always roasting the turkey or dad pretending to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. With your loved one gone, there is a hole that needs to be filled. 

You may find yourself feeling sad and lonely, even in the presence of others while they joyfully celebrate all the festivities. How can you feel joyful when your loved one is no longer here? It’s hard to relate to a sea of smiling faces when you’re struggling to keep it together.

Coping Strategies for Dealing with Grief During the Holidays

  1. Know that it’s normal to struggle with feelings of grief during the holiday season! Be kind to yourself. Especially if this is the first year after the passing of a loved one.
  2. It’s okay to limit the number of celebrations you attend. Try not to isolate yourself too much, but don’t overdo it either. At the beginning of the holiday season, sit down and listen to yourself, tuning in to what your heart, mind, and body are telling you in terms of what you can manage.
  3. Give yourself permission to grieve. Set aside 5-10 minutes a day to let yourself cry, journal, or honor the memory of your loved one in a special way. And if you’re at a holiday party and feel like the tears are welling up inside you and you can’t hold them back, excuse yourself to the bathroom and give yourself that gift of releasing your pain for a few minutes until you feel comfortable stepping back outside to socialize with others.
  4. Find ways to honor your loved one with special holiday traditions, or, create new ones with those who are still here!
  5. Seek support from trusted friends and family members. Surround yourself with people who know and understand you well and are willing and able to hold a kind and gentle space for your grief. If necessary, seek professional support or join a local grief support group.

How Trauma and the Holidays are Connected

The holiday season is a time when all 5 senses are enlivened with an orchestra of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations. These sensory experiences have a remarkable connection to our brain’s memory center, called the hippocampus. This memory center activates, when you feel the brisk, cold fall air blowing against your face, eat candy corn on Halloween, inhale the scent of a Pumpkin Spiced Latte, hear your favorite carol playing on Spotify, or see the twinkling Christmas lights in your neighborhood.

It’s an incredibly powerful connection that can evoke both joyful recollections and also painful memories, especially if you have experienced something traumatic in your life. The blending of our 5 senses which are ignited by the season can act as a double-edged sword – calling forth both warm memories of past celebrations and the pain of unresolved wounds. 

Understanding this relationship between the holidays and your senses is key to navigating this unique season as it enables you to have compassion for yourself when you struggle while also looking for ways to create new meaning and positive associations with this special time of year.

Tips for Coping with Holiday Trauma Triggers

  1. Prepare in advance for potential triggers. Is there a specific holiday or season that a traumatic event occurred? If so, know that it might be more difficult. Be mindful that the sights, sounds, smells, etc. may inadvertently trigger a trauma memory or panic attack. Make appropriate adjustments in your environment so you can effectively cope with your trauma symptoms.
  2. Choose which holiday activities you want to participate in and which ones you’d like to opt out of. It’s okay to say “no” when you’re feeling overwhelmed or dealing with more on your plate. Engage in celebrations that promote healing and personal growth. Practice self-compassion and being kind to yourself. 
  3. Elicit the support of others. Surround yourself with people who understand you and know what you’ve gone through. Reach out for professional help if needed.

As we enter into the holiday spirit, let’s not forget the magic that our senses bring to this time of year. They can fill us with warmth and nostalgia, but they can also stir up tricky emotions, especially if you’re grappling with grief or trauma. So, this holiday season, be kind to yourself and to those around you. Embrace the beautiful moments and have patience with the tough ones. By recognizing how your senses and memories intertwine, you can make these times a journey of growth and understanding. Remember, you’re not alone in this. 

Support Through the Holiday Season

If you’d like more support for navigating the holidays during difficult times, feel free to reach out and schedule a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation to see if I might be a good fit for your needs: (619) 494-0754.