By Craig Monger

Celebrating the holidays in light of the past year and a half may bring many negative emotions.

While the holidays are often stressful, they are primarily a time to enjoy a reprieve from everyday life and reconnect with distant friends and relatives. However this year, people will face various issues attending family gatherings.

The COVID–19 pandemic brought with it many consequences. Whether those consequences were compulsory isolation, economic instability, self-induced seclusion, or the inability to travel to visit loved ones, the pandemic took its toll. 

Additional effects of the pandemic come at the hands of the virus itself. The death toll of COVID–19 means that many in the country have lost friends and loved ones since the virus began to spread in late 2019. For many, this upcoming holiday season will be the first time in over a year that they have gathered with family. For some, that will mean enduring the holidays without the presence of a particular loved one.

Family deaths leave holes in traditions, making people confused about who will fill the void left by the departed family member. Many families have holiday traditions: someone cuts the turkey, another person plays the piano, and another makes the stuffing. The loss of those who fill various roles and carry out certain traditions can be disorienting and add to an overpowering sense of grief.

According to Dr. Tali Berliner, a psychologist with The Psychology Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., feelings of fear and anxiety surrounding loss during the holidays are widespread. There are some ways that negative emotions can be mitigated.

“Grief is always evolving and at times, the feelings seem to be out of our control,” Berliner said. “Therefore, the ‘pause’ button does not exist and it is challenging to be in pain while there is so much joy all around you. However, there are things you can do to help alleviate some of that conflict you may be experiencing.”

According to Berliner, no matter the temptation to remove traditions that a now-departed family member once filled, you should try to continue as many traditions as possible; this both honors and celebrates the departed and allows the whole family to experience joy in remembrance.

Planning will also ensure that specific responsibilities do not remain undone and will prevent the family from feeling the loss even more. Ensuring that now–vacant roles are filled will allow the family to be more at ease with the new order while feeling deprived of valued kindred.

“Loss often means that certain roles will need to be filled,” Berliner said. “It is important to think ahead (especially with children) to consider who will fill those vacated roles. Planning ahead can avoid unnecessary moments of grief and can help make the experiences more fluid and enjoyable.”

Just because it is the holiday season does not mean that you are obligated to attend all events. Giving yourself time and space can be equally beneficial in coping with grief, according to Berliner.

“It may be helpful to commit to something that sounds fun while reminding yourself that you don’t have to stay the entire time,” Berliner said. “It is also okay to opt out of certain things altogether. Finding a balance between engaging and not pushing yourself is important.”

Research shows that being honest with yourself and others can be beneficial to properly dealing with grief. Pretending that nothing is wrong does not help anyone and will inevitably cause regression, Berliner said.

“Grief does not take a back seat during the holidays and can often be magnified,” Berliner said. “It’s important to acknowledge your feelings and not avoid them.”

According to Dr. Kelly Erola, the Chief Medical Officer for Lower Cape Fear (N.C.)  LifeCare, self–awareness is paramount in dealing with grief.

“Pay attention to and be honest with yourself about your feelings,” Erola said. “Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling; name the feeling; write it down or say it out loud; and acknowledge that sadness, pain or whatever your feelings are – they are ‘your’ feelings.”

Both Berliner and Erola suggest volunteering as an effective way of finding activities during the holidays. Engaging in charitable endeavors is very helpful for alleviating personal pain. This allows for brief moments in which you benefit yourself by benefiting others.  

“Look for opportunities to invest yourself in helping others: call a lonely person, give to a food bank or shelter, adopt a child or senior in need and give them a special holiday,” Erola said. “Take the focus off your pain and your troubles by investing yourself in helping others. After all, ‘giving’ is what the holiday season is about."