HCA Healthcare psychiatrist: how to handle your grief during the holidays

Volunteers sorting toys in a warehouse
Give back this holiday season. Research shows that giving your time to a good cause can reduce the risk of depression, lower stress and reignite a sense of purpose.

The holidays should be a time of tremendous joy. But when you’ve experienced a loss—especially if that loss is recent—the season can bring painful feelings of sorrow to the surface. Below, a psychiatrist with HCA Healthcare offers strategies to get you through the “holiday blues”.

woman sitting at the window sill and drinking tea

Grief manifests differently in different people. It often accompanies the passing of a loved one, but can occur with other losses, like a divorce or being fired from your job. When you’re grieving, it may be marked by crying, sleeping too much or too little, overeating, a lack of appetite or avoiding social situations. Some people may be at greater risk for complicated grief, or grief that doesn’t get better over time, interfering with their ability to function.

Grief and complicated grief are different from major depression, but depression can develop at any time during the grieving process. People with a history of depression or anxiety, especially if it is undertreated or untreated, may be more vulnerable to the effects of grief.

If you’re worried about grieving over the holidays, try these strategies—so your feelings don’t become overwhelming.

Reach out

Headshot of Jeffrey Cluver
Dr. Jeffrey Cluver, medical director of psychiatry with affiliate Trident Medical Center

“Many people bemoan the fact that they need to be around friends and family during the holidays. But, in truth, it is incredibly helpful to be with them during a difficult time,” says Dr. Jeffrey Cluver, medical director of psychiatry with affiliate Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Yes, family can be stressful and annoying,” Dr. Cluver notes, “but they can also offer tremendous support and comfort when you are grieving.” If you’re not feeling up to it, however, it’s okay to cancel plans—even at the last minute. Your close friends and family will understand.

Don’t ignore your grief

There isn’t an expiration date for heartache. It’s okay to be sad—even during the holidays. “Allow yourself to feel those emotions,” Cluver says.

“Time helps, but grief won’t go away on its own,” he explains. “You can’t just wait it out. You need a place and way to process your feelings of loss.”  

Say no sometimes

The holidays are typically fraught with obligation after obligation. You don’t have to say yes to every event, or events that may worsen your grief.

“Separate out the people and places that are supportive versus those that are toxic,” says Cluver. But don’t say no to all events, he adds. Remember there is a happy medium between not engaging in events that will be triggers and being reclusive.

Don’t overdo commitments

If the thought of throwing an elaborate dinner or event feels overwhelming, simplify your plans. “Focus on the people, not the activity,” Cluver says. “Don’t get caught up insisting on hosting the perfect event.”

Create new customs

When your seasonal traditions are closely tied to a loved one who has passed away, it’s okay to change things up. This can include traveling or hosting the holidays yourself, or even just cooking new foods. You can find ways to honor your loved one, too, like making a group donation to a favorite charity.

“Ask yourself how this person would want to be remembered,” Cluver suggests. “Celebrating a person’s life can change the lens through which you are viewing your loss.”

Mom and toddler pouring water into a bowl of cookie dough mix
Create new traditions to honor your loved one: this can include traveling or hosting the holidays yourself, or even just cooking new foods

Focus on healthy habits

“Don’t cope with grief or stress by drinking too much alcohol or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors,” Cluver says. “If you are dealing with grief and underlying depression or anxiety and add other substances, it will make everything worse.”

Excess alcohol or drug use may temporarily ease your pain, but it can also damage your body and complicate your long-term recovery. In contrast, eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting adequate sleep may help improve your mood and maintain good health overall.

Give back

Whether it’s serving Thanksgiving dinner at a local homeless shelter, organizing a holiday coat drive or joining an organization important to your deceased loved one, volunteering can help you better cope with your grief during and after the holiday season. Research shows that giving your time to a good cause can reduce the risk of depression, lower stress and reignite a sense of purpose, among other benefits.

Seek professional help

“If there is a day or two over the holidays where grief hits you especially hard, that’s okay,” Cluver says. “But if it settles in and doesn’t go away, you may need to seek professional help.”

He adds that you should also reach out if you’re struggling to the point that it’s difficult to function. These feelings may suggest complicated grief or depression. Talk therapy, with or without medication, can get you back on track. Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a therapist, who can help you handle your grief around the holidays and in the days moving forward.

If your grief is overwhelming and you’re thinking of harming yourself, it’s important to get help right away. Head to an emergency room, dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

With more than 60 inpatient programs and 160 outpatient programs across 18 states, HCA Healthcare supports a connected network of behavioral health centers. We provide a wide variety of treatment options to meet the needs of patients including adult, geriatric and child/adolescent programs, as well as telehealth and community need programs in select markets.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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