Why the Holidays Hurt

Author: Deborah Robinson

Coping with the Reality of Those Special Days

This article first appeared in Holiday Hope: Remembering Loved Ones During Special Times (Fairview Press, 1998) and is reprinted with permission.

People who are grieving fear holidays. Holidays can be times when they have to face more than their wounded emotions can bear. Why is grief more acute during the holidays? What follows are some of the reasons holidays can make grief more painful. None of these reasons alone may cause undue pressure, but two or three together can be enough to overwhelm a grieving person.

broken ginger bread cookie

REGRESSION 

Holiday celebrations commemorate the past. Those who celebrate mark and remember past events. Some events may be from our lifetime, some may be hundreds or thousands of years old. We eat a meal in remembrance of the shared feast between Indians and Pilgrims, or in remembrance of a journey out of bondage. We light a menorah or an evergreen tree. We remember the accomplishments of a martyred civil rights leader or of great American presidents. We salute an American flag, watch fireworks, or place a wreath on a veteran's grave. All of these practices and traditions cause us to look back, to regress in our thoughts to an earlier time.

Grief, too, is a regressive event. It can cause people to regress psychologically. Grieving children will often regress to more childlike behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, and baby talk. Adults may find comfort in being held, rocked, or patted by those offering sympathy. In severe grief, adults may even curl into a fetal position, a sign of ultimate regression. In a more general sense of regression, grief can force us to focus on the past rather than dealing with the present or preparing for the future. 

Grieving adults fear the future because they are uncertain about what lies ahead; thus, they go back and think about their life before it changed, when things seemed safer. The past seems safer than the future simply because we know we have survived it. The future can be a terrifying unknown. When holiday remembrance and grief-related regression are combined, as they are during holidays, they can quickly spiral the bereaved down to new depths of grief, particularly if the holidays come soon after the loss. 

SELF-CENTEREDNESS IN A TIME OF SELFLESSNESS

The holidays are a time to express our gratitude for what has been given to us, or sacrificed for us, to make our lives better. And they are a time to give to others. Solicitations from charities abound during the holidays. Gifts are purchased and exchanged, food is given to others, volunteers feed the homeless, bell ringers remind us to drop money in the kettle for the less fortunate. For most of us, it feels good to give—but not for the bereaved.

Grief is selfish. The bereaved say “I have lost, and I hurt; I am lonely and confused. I need to get to know me again. I need to be comforted. I am angry. I am sad. I. I. I.” When we lose someone, we focus on ourselves—we tend to look inward rather than outward. The work of grieving is the work of re-identifying the self; thus, the bereaved are very self-centered. 

The bereaved's self-centeredness collides with the holiday message of selflessness, which creates confusion and guilt. The bereaved often feel there is something wrong with them, because prior to their loss, they always felt good about giving during the holidays. Now they feel bad because they are unable to summon up the giving spirit. The loss of holiday spirit becomes yet another loss for the bereaved to cope with, making their grief even more painful.

FAMILY REUNIONS

Holidays bring families together to celebrate according to the family's traditions. The support that a family gives to the bereaved can be of great solace. So, too, the lack of support from family can be a source of added pain for the bereaved. People move through the grieving process at their own pace. Without knowing it, those who are farther along may expect the other family members to be where they are in the grieving process. Those who are taking more time may feel there is something wrong with them. Family members less affected by the loss may be less sympathetic and supportive to those who feel the loss more acutely. Lack of support during the holidays can cause the bereaved to feel abandoned by the ones they trust the most.

All of the politics of protection that exist within families come into play during holidays. The bereaved may avoid family reunions because they do not want the joyous occasion brought down by their sadness. Family members may avoid the bereaved because they fear they may exacerbate the pain.

Finally, people carry emotional baggage from childhood. All sorts of conflicts and unresolved issues from childhood are carried into adulthood. Family reunions bring the bereaved back together with those who let them down or caused them pain earlier in their lives. All these factors can accumulate and heighten the pain of grieving at family reunions and holiday get-togethers.

SADNESS IN A TIME OF JOY

Holidays are celebrations. Those who celebrate are supposed to be happy and joyous. The reality is that many are not. For many, a holiday is just another day of loneliness, pain, and fear. 

Grief is not suspended during holidays. Nevertheless, the bereaved feel their sadness is out of place, and they feel left out of the celebration. They may miss the way they used to feel about the holiday. Even if a grieving person begins to have some fun during a holiday, such fun may have a negative result. Good feelings may cause the bereaved to feel guilty, and sad feelings quickly return. When the bereaved are able once again to feel good about feeling good, they should take it as a sign that they are resolving their grief.

HOLIDAY MUSIC

Music brings back memories—memories that remind us of what was and can never be again. Music moves us; it penetrates the walls we have built around ourselves to protect us from the invasion of memories. During holidays, especially in December, music is everywhere: on the radio, on television specials, in churches, in retail stores, even on telephones while you wait on hold. The bereaved are unable to escape the music that stirs memories and emotions.

RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS

Most holidays are also Holy Days and therefore have a religious and spiritual element. The religious aspect of holidays can be hard for the bereaved to accept. They often are angry with God during this time of loss and grief. The bereaved may feel abandoned by God and reluctant to participate in religious ceremonies. The death of a loved one can shake the deepest faith.

Bereaved persons may also feel abandoned by their faith community during holidays; they may feel that their fellow believers are not there for them when they need them most. After all, everyone is busy during the holidays. Also, the clergyperson who leads the holiday services may be the same person who officiated at the funeral or provided pastoral counseling right after the loved one’s death, so attending services may remind the bereaved of their loss.

All of the above may cause the hurting survivor to withdraw from the rituals, customs, support, and comfort that their religion once provided. Even worse, they may feel they are suffering another major loss: the loss of faith. Thus, contrary to common wisdom, religious celebrations can sometimes add to holiday woe for the grieving.

FIRST HOLIDAY WITHOUT

Like other “firsts” that the bereaved must recognize and grieve for—the first night without the deceased, the first family get-together, the first meal alone in a restaurant—the first significant holidays must be recognized and grieved for. Important “firsts” loom large in their minds. They ask, often weeks ahead of the holiday, "How will I get through the holiday meal or the holiday prayer with the family?" The day itself is, of course, very difficult. The bereaved find themselves in familiar holiday situations doing familiar things, but without their loved one. Their loss becomes even more real.

“Firsts” are not only hard to look forward to and live through, but they are hard to look back on. Once completed, they represent the passage of another landmark on the calendar, and so underline the growing separation from the deceased.

ALCOHOL

Holidays call for celebration, and celebration often calls for alcohol. Because alcohol is a depressant, it is easy to understand why the bereaved should limit their drinking. Alcohol may give quick relief from anxiety, so when the bereaved feel they will be overcome by grief at the family gathering, they might overuse the quick-fix medicine of alcohol. Too much alcohol increases depression, which can cause more drinking. The circle is vicious and can spin out of control.

Sometimes the bereaved discover that physical pain has a way of distracting one from emotional pain. Too much alcohol leads to nausea and other physical ailments. It is not unheard of for the grieving to drink to cause physical pain in order to distract themselves from emotional pain. 

EXHAUSTION

There is much to do during holidays: cleaning the house, cooking the meals, preparing the table, decorating the house, baking the cookies, buying the food, sending the invitations, buying the gifts, planning ceremonies. The list goes on and on, and accomplishing all that needs to be done can be exhausting.

The job of grieving, by itself, is an exhausting task. The grieving person must not only strive to come to terms with the loss of their loved one, but also with all the little losses in their life that come with that greater loss. The mental work involved seems endless and is very hard. When the work of the holidays is combined with the task of grieving, the bereaved can feel overwhelmed. They may not have the energy to do either job, let alone both, during holidays.

EXPECTATIONS OF THE “OLD ME”

Grief work is also the work of identifying the new self, the self that will live on after suffering the loss of a loved one. Holidays, on the other hand, are often a time when we are asked to be our old selves.

Celebrations, customs, rituals, and people that once met the needs of the old self no longer seem to meet the needs of the emerging new self. The bereaved often feel confused during this time and vacillate between the “old me” and the “new me.” Thoughts like “I should be putting up the tree, but this year I'd rather decorate the window” or “I should have all the old friends over for the traditional get-together, but I'm just inviting my three best friends this year” are examples of this conflict. The “shoulds” are the “old me” speaking, and the new decisions are the “new me” asserting itself. The bereaved often feel guilty because they cannot meet both the old needs and the new needs, and the guilt adds to their holiday stress.

Remember, mourning knows no season; it will occur with or without the holidays. Understanding the above reasons why the bereaved sometimes feel worse during holidays may help them to feel less confused, lonely, and sad during the holiday season.

Richard J. ObershawBy Richard J. Obershaw, MSW, LICSW: Richard J. Obershaw is the founder and director of the Grief Center in Lakeville, Minnesota. He lectures nationally and internationally on various social and psychological topics. He has authored Cry Until You Laugh: Comforting Guidance for Coping with Grief, and Death, Dying, Grief and Funerals. Dick has earned degrees in psychology and social work at the University of Wisconsin, a mortuary science degree from the Wisconsin Institute of Mortuary Science, and a master's degree in social work at the University of Minnesota. He is a wounded Vietnam veteran.