Coping with Loss During the Holidays

For many people this time of year means a time of great joy and celebration. For many others however, the holidays are fraught with anxiety and sadness especially if they have had losses in the past year. Living through the holidays feels to some, in fact, like walking through a minefield.

A patient of mine, (I’ll call Jeannie) lost her mother a few years ago to breast cancer. She felt she coped pretty well that first Christmas. But this year, the second holiday, she’s having trouble focusing and feels sad all the time.  It’s not just the loss of her mother a few years ago that she’s reacting to. Jeannie lost her job in February; her 13-year-old Labrador died in September; and last week she learned her son can’t join her for Christmas. Jeannie had not recognized that these life events are all “losses” and had not connected them together.

As a psychologist, I know that there are many kinds of losses we face in life, especially as we approach middle age. Some losses are obvious to us (death, divorce) and others (the loss of a pet, a brush with a serious illness or an adult child leaving the nest) are not so obvious. As these accumulated losses pile up, we can begin to get anxious, sad or even clinically depressed. One loss in the present (child not coming home for Christmas) can, and often does, stir up all the previous losses (mothers’ death, pet’s death etc).

One of the reasons we are particularly vulnerable to feeling these losses at this time of year is that that these holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa) emphasize family togetherness and close friends. The holidays have the power to stir in us memories of years past when we may have been all together. If you have had any loss, the void is particularly poignant this time of year. And if your family is one of the millions that have experienced a loss of income, job or home, this time may be even more stressful and painful.

So, even though this can be a very tough time of year, you don’t have to hunker down and wait for Groundhog Day. Firstly, if your family has experienced a loss of any kind this year, it’s important to talk about it as a family. Acknowledge your loss, share your feelings.

Talk about how things will be different and brainstorm ways you can adjust the holiday celebration, by scaling it back or transforming it. If you have been laid off, for example, and can’t afford to visit out-of-town relatives, you can explore inexpensive ways to relax at home with friends or family. Maybe explore your city for the first time at the holidays or stock up on old movies or board games.

If your adult children can’t make it home this year, research creative ways to stay in touch with them by using Internet video-conferencing such as Skype, or making a Holiday video on YouTube. If you are single and you can’t get home this year, you might try volunteering at a local food bank or caroling with a group at a nursing home or church. It will help you feel a bit less alone and make you feel better.

So many people struggle with feelings of loss this time of year. It’s important to remind yourself that you are not alone. But if you have been struggling for two weeks or more, having difficulty getting to work or school, sleeping or eating, or if you are feeling helpless or hopeless, you might benefit from talking to a psychologist or other mental health professional. You can find a referral to a psychologist through APA.

Have you experienced a loss this year? Have you been laid off? How you are handling it this holiday season? Are you changing any of your holiday celebrations or scaling back? Let us know in the comments!

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3 Responses to “Coping with Loss During the Holidays”

  1. jonathan verrall   February 3, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Thank you Nancy for that insight, i had a rather sad christmas infact im still rather glum, we usually go on family Antigua Holidays over the festival period but since mum passed i havent gone and christmas I don’t think will ever feel the same

    thanks again


  2. Holidays from Aberdeen Airport to Spain   January 25, 2011 at 6:42 am

    The holidays can be a difficult time. Having read this article and shared it with someone close to me, it made this holiday period a little easier to cope with. Thanks

  3. Cheryl   December 9, 2010 at 7:50 am

    It is not very helpful for you to publish these articles on your website for viewing and then make the article itself non printable. I’d like to be able to print and post certain articles on the employee bulletin board with hopes that some employees will stop and read them and find them very helpful.

    It’s a wonderful resource for supervisors to use in a non threatening and inconspicous manner.