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Grief & Loss: Coping With Holidays During COVID-19

December 9th, 2020

The holidays can be a painful time of year for people experiencing the loss of a loved one and challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic may make coping with the loss even more difficult. University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry researcher Sarah T. Stahl, PhD, whose work focuses on improving the mental and physical health of bereaved older adults, shares her tips for getting through the holidays without your loved one.

  1. Talk about the person who died. Including your loved one’s name in conversations can help family and friends recognize your need to remember your loved one. If you notice that people hesitate to speak about your loved one, it is probably because they are afraid it will make you feel sad or uncomfortable.
  2. Allow yourself to experience a range of emotions. The holidays can increase the intensity of many emotions. This year, emotions are likely to be even more unpredictable given the added stressors of COVID-19. You might feel joy, sadness, and grief all within a few minutes. Be open to these feelings and know that it is normal to experience positive and negative emotions.
  3. Be with supportive, comforting people…virtually. Identify friends and family members who allow you to be yourself and talk openly about your feelings. Tell these individuals you enjoy spending time with them. Schedule regular phone calls with these individuals.
  4. Do what is right for you. You don’t have to face every holiday event or tradition. If an event is going to bring up too many painful memories, be willing to say no and instead focus on what you want to do. As you become more aware of your needs, share them with your family and friends.
  5. Plan for family gatherings…virtuallyFamily time will likely look different this year as you may not be able to participate in your usual family gatherings due to COVID-19 health precautions. Instead, schedule a video call with family to eat dinner together and share stories or prepare food to-go and exchange with family and friends via contactless delivery. Whatever you do, structure your holiday time so that you have both alone time and family time.
  6. Find ways to embrace memories of your loved one. Share stories, play music, or cook foods that were special to your loved one. You may also wish to create or buy a new ornament in memory of your loved one to decorate the tree.
  7. Create new traditions. Don’t be afraid to create new traditions, such as setting out a plate during a holiday dinner and having everyone share a special memory of that person, planning a meal with your loved one’s favorite foods, or writing a poem about your loved one to read during a holiday gathering.
  8. Reach out to others. Giving and caring for others can be healing. A donation of a gift, food, clothing, or your time could be done in memory of your loved one. If you have children or grandchildren, find a special holiday story and donate that book to your local library.
  9. Take care of yourself. Make yourself a priority. Eat healthy food, stick to a regular sleep and activity schedule, and try to get some exercise outdoors. Spend a few minutes each day doing what you love. Avoid the temptation to use alcohol to self-medicate.
  10. Ask for help. Not everyone will know what to do, so let friends and family know that you are having a hard time and let them know how they can help. If you need more support, contact your local church or hospice group to learn about programs in your community. If you are feeling sad, down, or depressed, a professional counselor can help.

“In our work with bereaved spouses, we have learned that while it may be tempting to pretend the holidays don’t exist, it is what you do during this time that can help you heal. Most of our participants say that it is important to take it easy and balance time alone (for remembering and grieving) with planned activities with others. The pandemic mixed with the holiday season is new for everyone so be kind and gentle to yourself. Just because you made changes this year doesn’t mean they’re permanent; each year will be different. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to spend the holidays,” added Dr. Stahl.

Please note: A different version of this article appeared in 2018. To learn more about Dr. Stahl’s research with bereaved older adults, please visit Pitt+Me.