7 Things To Do When the Holidays Hurt

While every city street is lined with twinkling lights, and Christmas music plays, it’s not always easy to feel joy in your heart.


It can often be a simple reminder. For me it’s cinnamon gum. We always used to put cinnamon gum in my dad’s stocking, and I find myself in line at the grocery store, buying it and closing my eyes as I chew it.


Whether you’re feeling the loss of a loved one, suffering through a divorce, or dealing with another significant loss, here are 7 things I’ve learned to do in my own life and seen help others this time of year.


Give yourself permission to grieve


When someone you love is gone during the holidays it can be so painful. It doesn’t matter if it’s been days or many years, grief often lasts a lifetime—just as your love for them will. After telling yourself to “hold it together” during Christmas parties and holiday events, it’s important to tell yourself “it’s okay to be sad”. This is not something small; this is dealing with death and loss.


Giving yourself permission may be scheduling a specific time, away from everyone, where you can “let it out”. Or for others of you it may be allowing yourself to take a step into vulnerability and say to a loved one “I’m so sad” and sitting together in it.


Give yourself permission to feel joy


My sister and I have two little girls, and they’re very excited for Christmas. Seeing their joy is so contagious. Yet, knowing our father cannot be here brings a sense of guilt and makes the joy very bittersweet. When my sister and I were talking about our guilty feelings, she said that she found it very important for her to allow herself to feel joy during the holidays. Not only is it good for our girls, but also it’s what our dad would’ve wanted.


This guilt, I think, often comes from believing our happiness is a symbol that we don’t miss them, or a symbol that we’ve moved past it. When in actuality it’s specifically a fear that other people will perceive us that way—we know we’re never going to move past it or stop missing them. So instead, we should see our happiness as a symbol of strength.


We’ve both found great beauty in our joy. We’ve found that feeling happy during grief can bring those we’re missing closer and bring a joy greater than any previous to our pain.


Keep them a part of the holiday


If you’re suffering a loss of a loved one, you may not be able to have them physically present, but you can keep traditions going that were important to them. In this way, they stay a part of the holidays. My dad always read from the Bible while we sat on the couch, still in our Christmas jammies. I can now do that tradition with my family and it makes my heart happy to know my dad would love that.


Communicate your needs


Honestly, there are probably a lot of family members around you who are clueless at how to help you during your grief. Even with the sweetest of intentions, they’ll more than likely try and fail in many ways. Thus it’s often very helpful to communicate your needs. It’s so easy to interpret others’ naivety as insensitive, but grief is often an emotion that stumps event the most emotionally intelligent people.


Letting others know how you’d like support can be extremely helpful during the holidays and there’s a chance it could be helpful to those around you as well.

Understand that just as we are all different, so is the way we grieve


One way we can make our grief worse is by expecting others to grieve the same, or feeling pressure from the world around us to grieve in a particular way. While it’s important to cope in healthy ways, it’s also important to realize that not everyone’s needs are the same. The best we can do is to make an effort to understand others, and also be patient with those who don’t understand this complex concept that is grief.


Reach out to others


A great way to use your pain in a positive way is to reach out to someone else in need or to someone else in grief. You could volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, you could put extra creativity into your Christmas presents, but for me it happened to be just reaching out to someone I knew.


During the first few months after my dad passed away, I learned that someone I knew recently lost her father as well. I thought about writing her so many times, but didn’t have the energy or didn’t feel comfortable because we weren’t that close. I finally decided to just do it, and let me tell you, it was one of the most healing experiences in that entire year. We decided to meet up for coffee and conversation and spent a couple hours just telling our stories and crying over a similar pain. We both felt a connection through our loss that we so greatly needed. I had written her to bring her support, but I got so much in return.


Believe this: you are doing so good, dear friend


I know what it’s like to feel guilty about not being happy, to feel bad about not having the energy to Christmas shop or make cookies. I’ve even known what it’s like to look around and wish I could be “better” in one way or another. Please listen to this, you are doing so good, dear friend. You’re going through one of the hardest parts of life on Earth. You are so strong, you are so brave, and you are weaving your way.


And while I write this, chewing cinnamon gum, I know that I’m not alone in my grief. While I hate thinking of others suffering in a similar way, It helps to know that others are walking a similar path and it gives me strength.


Mindy Kissinger is finishing her PhD in Counseling Psychology at Andrews University. She and her husband Seth Kissinger, live in Niles, MI with their daughter Mia.

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