They say grief is like a wolf at the door. For those dealing with loss, the holidays can feel like someone propped that door open and invited the wolf in for Christmas dinner.
“Make yourself at home, Grief. You always do. Let’s fix you a plate before this turkey gets cold!”
The holidays are a stressful time even when things are going well. Add illness, job loss, divorce or the death of a loved one to the mix, and comfort and joy seems impossible to come by.
There’s no shortcut through grief, as anyone who has experienced it can tell you. And unfortunately, no one can escape it. But there are some things little things you can do to take the edge off your suffering, especially during the holiday season.
Look for the Little Things
Stephen Colbert has said that grief is its own size, and depending where you are in your journey that can be anything from petite to XXXL. Since sorrow can seem all-consuming, it can be helpful to start by focusing on the small joys in life, according to psychologist Susan Apollon.
“When you hear the laughter of children, focus on how good that feels,” she says. “When you eat a piece of pie, really taste it. In the moment, it tastes so good—and in that moment, you’re outside your grief.”
From the sight of flickering candles and twinkling lights to the sound of carolers and the taste of chocolate coins, every day is made of thousands Thankful Moments. All you have to do is notice them.
Make New Memories
The holidays are steeped in rituals. When loss or disappointment disrupts a beloved tradition, the cycle of grief starts fresh. That’s why it’s important to create new traditions. Whether it’s a twist on a classic or something completely different, it’s important not to let your heartache keep you from marking watersheds in your life.
If you’re hesitant to jump right into new customs, consider starting a tradition of memorializing your loss. To honor a lost loved one, you can light a candle in their honor, prepare their favorite meal or buy a gift with them in mind and give it to someone less fortunate. As your grief subsides, these small memorials could become beloved holiday rituals for years to come.
Find Ways to Serve
Thankfulness is incomplete without action. In order to take full advantage of thankfulness, you have to find ways to pay it forward—to create opportunities for other people to be thankful too.
There’s no better time than the holidays to find service opportunities. Find an hour to volunteer at a soup kitchen; gather coats, gloves and socks to donate to the homeless; make a meaningful donation to a worthy cause.
No matter gloomy you feel—no matter what pain or misfortune you’ve endured—someone out there has it worse. Finding that person and doing something to alleviate their suffering, however small, will not only make you feel more thankful…it’ll make it possible for them to feel thankful too.
Acquire a Taste for the Bittersweet
Life can be good even if it’s not perfect. In a blog post on Psychology Today, Dr. Joseph Burgo praised the classic holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a valuable examination of grief and gratitude.
“[I]t’s bittersweet, a mixture of feelings,” Burgo says. “George never did get to travel the world and have adventures, as he had always longed to do. He’d always grieve for what he’d missed, and always regret what he’d never have the chance to do. He’d also love and feel deeply grateful to his wife, family and friends. One doesn’t erase the other.”
We don’t have to erase sorrow and disappointment in order to let thankfulness take over. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”—and there’s a lot—it’s that Sadness and Joy can coexist.
Just because grief is sticking around like a predator on your porch doesn’t mean holiday cheer will be too afraid to knock. Let it in. When you let the contrast of grief’s shadow with life’s little joys make you feel thankful, the season will take on new meaning—rich ambiguity, sincere empathy and limitless compassion.