Five Ways to Cope With Grief This Holiday Season

Winter Photo

Kristin Meekhof, author of “A Widow’s Guide to Healing,” shares the lessons she’s learned

Ahead of the holidays, we’re sharing an exclusive piece written for Wake-Up Call by Kristin Meekhof, author of A Widow’s Guide to Healing.

My late husband died from advanced adrenal cancer in 2007, when I was only 33 years old. Despite having a master’s degree in social work, nothing prepared me for this heartbreaking grief. My body swarmed with sadness, anxiety and fear. His funeral was less than a week before Thanksgiving, so that first holiday season was beyond grueling.

In the three years that followed, one of the ways I coped with my loss was to read. I read everything I could about grief, and it didn’t have to necessarily be about the loss of a spouse. My father had died, also of cancer, just two weeks shy of my fifth birthday. I was curious how people handled loss. My research took me around the world, and I interviewed as many widows as possible — from the backwoods of Montana to the Kibera slum in Kenya — for what became my book A Widow’s Guide to Healing.

One of the common threads that hems all these widows together is the feeling of isolation, especially during certain times of the year, such as the holidays. If you’re newly bereaved — or if years have passed since your loved one died — and you’re dreading the holiday season, you’re not alone. So I thought I’d share five ways to cope with the upcoming weeks.

Protect your energy

Your energy is your currency. And if you think about your emotional energy as having a specific bandwidth, like a cell phone, you can appreciate there are limits to it. Certain situations and people can drain your “emotional” battery, leaving you with little energy for other things. During this season, it will be important to be aware of who and what deplete your resources and demand more from you than you are able to give.

Throughout the day, check in with yourself as often as you check your cell phone to monitor where you are at with your energy level and emotions. Simply doing these “self check-ins” creates a level of personal awareness. And at the same time, you are gauging your feelings, so you can know when to slow down. If you need to recharge, try to find a way to speak with someone who supports you with kindness or even listen to a favorite playlist to boost your mood. Or if needed, alter your schedule.

Choose wisely who listens to you

Becoming selective when it comes to sharing your grief narrative isn’t snobbish — it’s smart. Your story is valuable beyond measure, and sharing every detail may not be necessary. If you don’t feel someone will truly value you or in some way benefit from hearing your narrative, then save it for another time and person.

Your story is part of your loss, and repeating it to people who don’t honor it can be upsetting. And it can also stir up other negative emotions. Keep in mind, others may know of your loss, but it remains your right to communicate how it is being told.

Seek professional help

Don’t shy away from scheduling an appointment with a licensed professional, including a therapist or life coach. It may be helpful to schedule the time either before or after a specific event, so you can process any feelings accompanying it.

Regardless of how much time has elapsed since the passing of your loved one, the architecture of grief is such that feelings and emotions are multi- layered. For example, anger or depression can resurface with a vengeance. The intensity can be scary, so having a professional to guide you through this can provide a sense of safety and security that may otherwise be absent. There is no shame in speaking with a professional about your fears. Talking aloud with someone often helps you focus on the moment you are in instead of being haunted by the past and afraid of the future. It can also validate your concerns and give you a blueprint for coping with stressful situations.

Also, your physical body can be impacted by grief. I know after my husband’s funeral, my immune system was compromised. I went to an urgent care clinic with a fever, only to be diagnosed with a double ear infection, strep and bronchitis. The doctor told me it was all related to my loss.

It is important to speak with a doctor about any physical problems you are experiencing, including panic attacks, because things like broken heart syndrome are very real and are a serious medical condition. While you may feel embarrassed to go to your doctor, it is important to remember that medicine does have a significant place in healing.

Use your ‘opt-out’ pass

Anyone experiencing bereavement this time of the year has an all access “opt-out” pass that can be used anytime, anywhere and is not limited to specific situations or people. So, if you find yourself in a predicament where you want to decline after first saying “yes,” go ahead and use your pass. This works even if you are on your way to an event and want to leave as you’re about to walk into it or you’re already at the event and realize you made a mistake in attending it. This pass gives you permission to change your mind at any point in time, and is a way to proceed guilt-free. Remember, “No” is a complete sentence. You still have a choice.

If you’re trying to navigate the holidays with your children, giving them “a pass” as well can empower them to feel in charge of their grief. It is not unusual for a child to feel conflicted about attending a holiday party because they do not want to disappoint someone or they’re simply curious what is going on and do not want to miss out. However, when it is time to enter the party, they may feel overwhelmed with anxiety or fear, so giving them the option to leave can ease their negative feelings. The “pass” also lets them know you are open to their emotions, both good and bad, and they can trust you to share why they want to leave or sit out an activity.

Give yourself grace

While this time of the year may emphasize perfection and managing your image — from sending the right holiday photo to creating a stunning centerpiece — now is not the time to beat yourself up with critical thoughts. Extending compassion to yourself is not narcissistic; it is kind. Your inner-voice can create a list of things you could have done, should have done or wish you had done or it can create a list of ways to treat yourself with kindness. Mistakes happen and you can demote yourself or you can give yourself grace. When in doubt, extend grace to yourself.

The bereaved often conceal their grief rather than reveal it. And if you know someone who has lost a loved one, it means the world to them if you still acknowledge their loss regardless of when it happened. And if you’re missing your loved one, take some time to simply honor them in the way you know they would appreciate.

Kristin Meekhof is an author, Licensed Masters Level Social Worker, and life coach. See more of her work here, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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