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10 Things Grief Taught Me For The Holidays

Grief and the Holidays: What I’ve Learned

Grief: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.

-Webster’s Dictionary

The holidays can be particularly difficult for those in the midst of grieving something or someone. You’ve probably scrolled past at least one post in your social feed addressing the difficulties that the season poses for some. Whether coping with a loss of a loved one, a familial estrangement or navigating trauma triggered by the holidays, many feel at odds with the “happiest time of the year.”

Everyone experiences sadness. It is as commonplace as joy or happiness. Even falling into depression isn’t all that unique anymore. If there’s one thing Mental Health Awareness Week taught me, it is that many struggle with darker emotions.

Grief is a dark emotion, but the intensity, depth, and longevity of its experience set it apart.

In the past, I like many others grappled with living with grief. Now, with the worst of my experiences in the past and holiday celebrations that are likely to be more cheerful in front of me, I’ve found myself re-examining my journey through grief, and my current learning curve and emotional trajectory.

The grief experience is distinct. It is different from the difficult moments I’ve lived through in the past. At times, I found myself amazed at how painless those past experiences were in comparison. How silly and indulgent it now seems to me that I once felt the need to mourn a breakup or the end of a shitty friendship.

How small those things seem when viewed through the new perspective that I’ve been gifted.

Aricove Weighted Blankets

If there is a silver lining to the grieving process, it’s that with great pain comes an abundance of knowledge. A knowing you could acquire no other way than by going through this excruciating experience.

If there is a silver lining to the grieving process, it’s that with great pain comes an abundance of knowledge. A knowing you could acquire no other way than by going through this excruciating experience.

And while I know that I can only share so much with you if you have not met grief on your own yet, I hope I can give you some insights that you’ll find useful now or in the future should you find yourself or a loved one deep in mourning.

Here is what grief has taught me so far along with some tips to keep in mind as you make your way through the holidays.

10 Things I’ve Learned from Living with Grief   

The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned during my time of grieving.

grief, holiday stress, Mary Oliver Quotes
1. Grief shows you how strong you are (not)

I’ve always thought of myself as a robust person. In fact, I pride myself on my ability to use traumatizing experiences to better myself. Living with panic disorder has been tough, but overcoming it? Exhilarating. I thought I was strong. My experiences with grief have shown me how soft I am.

Grieving has served as a mirror of sorts. Except what it reflects back is your most vulnerable self. It reminds you that you are not made of impermeable emotional armor. For me, that reflection looks a lot like my childhood self. The little girl who existed long before joyful, authenticity got traded in for a more reserved, protective shell.

I value my vulnerability. Some of my best traits are housed in my softness: compassion, loyalty, and creativity. But grief has dispelled any false beliefs in my unbreakable strength.

2. Relationships aren’t always what they seem

Family, friends, and lovers: you are guaranteed to be shocked by who shows up for you and who doesn’t as you go through your grieving process. People you thought you were closest to may even be the most callous and cruel. Your mourning will bring out the best or the worst in those around you. Your social circle is likely to change drastically.

Our society doesn’t deal with tragedy or the resulting emotions well. Sending thoughts and prayers from a distance is one thing. But coming face to face with someone in the grip of mourning requires accepting the possibility that you too may one day be in the same position. Not many people can handle it that well, or at all.

The following are three distinct reactions people often have:

Complete avoidance:

People just want to have fun and be happy, and the best way to do that is to put a whole lot of distance between themselves and anything that might disrupt the good vibes. These friends might offer a pat on the back or an, “I’m so sorry.” But, as quickly as the sentiment leaves their lips, they are back to business as usual. This makes interacting with them really awkward because in order to be around them, you have to act like nothing is wrong. Resentment inevitably builds (see extreme emotions below).


I realize this reaction comes from a place of fear and ignorance, but it is the one reaction that I found most shocking. People want to believe that somehow they could avoid experiencing your pain by doing something differently or better. They may not say it or even acknowledge it themselves, but you will feel it.

Judgment comes through in the little things people say, the things they don’t say, the way they avert their eyes, and the faces they make. There are plenty of “tells” and they are all biting. In many ways, this is the reaction I find most harmful.

Grief itself makes you question everything about yourself: the past, the future, your worth…everything you’ve ever believed about yourself is likely to be on shaky ground. Doubt is a slippery slope that leads to dangerous places when you are at your most vulnerable.

Aricove Weighted Blankets

Life is not a half-hour sitcom or even a feature-length movie. Issues aren’t neatly resolved within a certain amount of time. There are those people who show up initially or listen intently at first only to quickly transform into the, “Get over it!” type who expects you to go back to your fun-loving self. These individuals are similar to the friends who show up for the baby shower and birth but disappear as soon as the doldrums of child-rearing set in.

Grief defines your relationships with others in ways you never expected it to. Those closest to you may let you down. People who you hardly know may be there with you every step of the way. Near strangers may be the only ones to answer your call for help, and lovers may, and will, disappear.

3. Boundaries are necessary
grief, Mary Oliver Quotes

You may lose friends and your connections with loved ones as you navigate your way through mourning. To avoid this, setting boundaries is necessary. If a loved one makes you feel worse when you are around them, set boundaries on the amount of time you spend together or what you can do or talk about with one and another. Those who really love you will respect your wishes.

4. The best kind of a friend says nothing

You might think you want answers. How could this have happened? Why? What did I do wrong? What could I have done better?

The best friend to have when you are in this stage is the one who says nothing. It’s startling to me, how good it was to hear a loved one say, “I don’t know. I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I’m here for you.” Or, “I’m so sorry, I know you are in so much pain. I love you.” Or, “Don’t you dare apologize for crying, it’s OK. I’m not going anywhere.”

No advice, no suggestions, no, “If I were you…” or, “I feel/This makes me feel…”

There’s nothing quite as soothing as having someone sit next to you (or on the other end of the phone) quietly with the unsaid promise of permanence, while you sob, rant, and completely fall apart again and again.

5. You are truly your own best friend (or not)

No one can hold, share or save you from your pain when you are grieving. And believe me, you’ll yearn for that white knight in shining armor. Even if there are others close to you who are grieving over the same thing you are, their perspective will differ from yours. Your grief is uniquely your own.

You will find yourself feeling so alone at times, you will wonder whether you can bare it. This is when being able to be there for yourself is crucial. No one knows how to ease your suffering like you do. Only you know what is best for you, and what will get you back to a healthier happier place.

Hold your own hand, hug yourself, and pay attention to the things you are saying to yourself in your head. Look in the mirror and have long, honest, loving conversations. It’s on you to be your own best friend.

Remember: if you are not actively being your own best friend, you are likely being your own worst enemy.

6. You really do not know what others are going through

I look at each person I encounter differently now. While grieving I’ve had more people ask things of me, turn to me for help, take their problems out on me—you know, the usual stuff we all do to each other. And I’ve wondered how different they would treat me if they knew the giant, gaping wound I was barely concealing behind a thin smile.

Grief, Mary Oliver quotes

Would you treat someone differently if you knew that the minute they shut the door to the bathroom or drove off in their car they broke down and cried?

I would.

7. Your emotions have surprising extremes

I was shocked by the range and intensity of my emotions. I have felt gut-wrenching sadness. The kind that feels and sounds as though your stomach is in your mouth when you cry. I have felt rage so strong I wanted to burn the world down. Even the moments of happiness that have somehow made their way to me, resulted in laughter that brought me to tears.

A word of advice: don’t make important decisions while experiencing any kind of extreme emotion.

8. Grief changes you

There’s no returning to your “life before grief”. Perhaps that’s why some say it never leaves you. Your suffering changes your relationships with those around you. It ends some, distances others, and creates strong bonds with unexpected and new people. Your journey will alter how you see yourself and how you treat yourself.

Your relationship with yourself will never be the same either. It may be better, or it may be worse. Some use their pain as an excuse to nosedive into substance abuse and destroy their relationships with others, others use it to make changes that they knew they needed before things fell apart. Either way, sometimes well into my journey I began to see myself differently, and I know that there is no going back.

9. Your sex life will be affected

If you have a lover or partner, be prepared to deal with the sexual side effects. There will be times on your journey through grief when sex is the last thing you want to do. The idea of engaging in a pleasurable, intimate physical act may seem wrong or feel impossible at times. Simply considering it may even make you feel guilty.

On the other hand, you might become hypersexual and seek out the comforting distraction of encounters with lovers to ease the amount of grief you are experiencing. Either way, your relationship with, and interest in sex is likely to change drastically and often.

Don’t judge yourself. And don’t put up with anyone else judging you. I recommend doing your best to use open and honest communication with your partners. Always, prioritize your safety in any sexual relationship as well.

10. Grief will ease

When you are in it, it’s hard to believe that your grief will ever lift. But, it will given enough time. The dark hole you feel stuck in will lighten. The weight of this darkness can feel extra heavy around the holiday season. It’s hard to see others filled with the joy of the season when happiness seems an impossibility at the moment. As hard as it is to imagine there is truth to the saying, “Time heals all wounds.” And while this truth doesn’t help at the moment, there are things you can do in the present to help. The following are some tips:

  • Take time every day to find and list the things that you are grateful for. If you can only find one thing, that is ok. Identify it, and use it as a focal point for your day.
  • Find at least one activity that brings you lightness, joy, or simply distracts you from your grief even if just for a moment. Integrate it into your day.
  • Spend time with your support people. Join them in their holiday rituals if possible. Happiness can be infectious.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to grieve through the season without judgment.


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Annette Benedetti
Annette Benedetti
Annette is a writer, editor and photographer from Portland, OR. Her work appears in a variety of publications including Bust, Red Tricycle, Motherly and Domino. When she’s away from her desk she can be found teaching women yoga at wilderness retreats, exploring new cities across the states and hiking the trails at Mt. Rainier—one of her favorite places on earth.
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