mental health

Holiday grief: How to welcome the new year while dealing with loss, according to a psychologist

Ysa Abad

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Holiday grief: How to welcome the new year while dealing with loss, according to a psychologist
Holidays can be an even more difficult time as feelings of loss and sadness are heightened

For many, the holidays are generally a joyous and festive season. The new year, in particular, puts everyone on a high, eager to start on a clean slate. 

But while many are eager to set new promises for themselves and are still fueled with renewed hope, the same can’t be said for people who’ve experienced losing a loved one. In fact, the holidays can be an even more difficult time, as their feelings of loss are heightened. 

Whether their loss is recent or not, they’re more vulnerable to feelings of dread, sadness, and isolation as they get reminded of what has been lost. Moreover, they might also not be keen on turning a new leaf and finding reasons to embrace the coming year. 

Rappler interviewed Registered Psychologist Eizaleen Fusingan–Lappay from mental health organization MindNation on the subject of holiday grief, and how to deal with loss during this season. 

“There is no one size fits all approach to grieving,” Fusingan-Lappay emphasized, adding that each individual has a unique approach to grieving as it is deeply personal. 

As the holiday season is also a period of reflection, Fusingan-Lappay advised that people explore the ways that they can cope — both as an individual and as a community. For those who are grieving during the holiday season, she gave these questions to ponder on:

  • Am I coping with grief the healthy way? 
  • Am I taking the time to sit with my feelings and express my thoughts? 
  • How can I take care of myself better in this challenging time?
  • What kind of support do I need at this time?
  • Who are the people I can tap for further support?

After mulling it over, she said that it would be helpful if they could discuss their thoughts about these with their chosen support system. 

Acknowledging the loss

Some members of a family who has experienced loss might opt out of celebrating the holidays, as they prefer grieving in silence, while others might feel the need to continue doing their family traditions. Just because the latter chooses a more active approach to celebrating the holidays doesn’t mean that they are not feeling the loss of a loved one. It’s important to note that every individual not only grieves differently, but they also need different things to cope. 

Fusingan–Lappay said that these differences will be handled better if relatives, friends, and community members can be more open about their healing process. 

“This requires communication within the unit as to what will be the best way to gather and celebrate,” she said. As celebrating the holidays without a significant person can already be painful and tough to begin with, she noted that having direct conversations about the departed person should be handled tactfully, as it might be a sensitive matter for other individuals. 

 “An important consideration is that, more than just the festive mood, family members will take the time to talk about ways of coping,” she added. “It could be more on checking in with each other as to how they are dealing with the present situation.” 

She also suggested establishing other ways of celebrating the holidays that could work best for the unit: “[This] is to explore means of connecting with the family members that are different from their usual celebration. This is not to forget the traditions and rituals from the past events, but to create something different.” 

“It may be a way to see life [through] a new lens and to see that we can grow while holding the significant person’s legacy in our hearts,” she added. 

Since holidays are also a time for multiple gatherings and events, she recommends contemplating over whether to attend them or not. 

“In terms of attending celebrations, we have to align this with our needs. This requires self-awareness. Do I need to be with someone right now or do I need some time alone? There should be a balance between isolation and connection in the grieving process,” she said. 

While it’s understandable that they might feel sad and not in the mood to celebrate, Fusingan-Lappay noted that it could also be unhealthy to decline all invites.

“Showing up at events can be a way to get connected and feel supported,” she explained. 

However, she also recognized that attending too many gatherings can get overwhelming — especially for someone who’s been going through a lot: “It matters that we set our intentions with connections. Is it to escape from intense emotions or to feel the support from people around us? Another consideration before deciding to attend is the kind of people whom we will get connected with. Ask yourself, ‘What kind of person do I need at this time?’”

Self-compassion is the key

Healing isn’t a linear process. You might feel fine on some days, and feel hopeless the next. And you shouldn’t feel guilty for having good days, or thinking that you’ve started moving on. 

“Remind oneself that it is okay to feel positive while grieving,” Fusingan-Lappay said. “It’s a healthy way to cope when we take the time to find joy. These emotions are necessary to feel. What matters is that we are aware of these emotions as it happens, so we can manage its impact.”

The most important note to remember, she said, is: “We should be the one in control of our emotions, not the emotions controlling us.” 

While she highlighted that there’s no right or wrong way of grieving, she pointed out that some circumstances could be unhealthy if too many emotions aren’t handled properly.

“Acknowledge the impact of grieving in the present relationship so that people involved can collaborate on ways that can alleviate the issues,” she advised. 

Although it’s important to give each individual the time and space to process their emotions, she also added that it’s imperative to set boundaries on when is the best time to reach out for discussion, especially when a person is isolating themselves for a long period of time. Additionally, these boundaries can also be helpful when sensitive topics are being brought up during gatherings and celebrations. 

Fusingan-Lappay shared that dealing with these conversations depends on the people that they are with. Some communities and spaces can make an individual feel comfortable in directly expressing their limits, while other individuals would divert to a different topic instead. 

In any case, it would be best for the people they are with to be conscious of this behavior to avoid providing unsolicited advice and disrespectful messages. She shared “3Ls” to take note of — Look, Listen, and Link. 

“Take the time to look and observe how the situation affects them. Look at the changes in their behavior patterns and possible distress reactions. In terms of listening, focus on them,” she explained. 

For these cases, some might need advice, while others will need comfort. Some might express themselves through crying, while others prefer just resting and being silent. Those who aren’t in the grieving person’s position should just follow the lead in the topics they’re comfortable talking about. Check how they are dealing with the situation, and help them explore ways that they can cope in a more healthy manner. For example, link them to other sources of support, such as encouraging them to consider professional help. 

Navigating these tricky situations can get exhausting, and even triggering for others. For those who anticipate feeling overwhelmed by these circumstances, here’s what Fusingan-Lappay advises:

  1. Remember that your emotions are valid. Take the time to sit with your feelings and acknowledge the impact of these emotions of your behavior. Awareness of one’s emotions can help build control.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Recognize your strengths and how you have coped with the previous challenges. 
  3. Set boundaries. Recognize your strengths and how you have coped with the previous challenges. 
  4. Seek support. You can express your feelings to a friend, family member, or to a mental health professional. Do not be afraid to ask for help. 

After all, she noted, grieving processes should help individuals cope better in tough situations.

“Instead of asking yourself why it happened, it’s also important to ask yourself how you are learning in this experience, and how you can move forward in this situation,” Fusingan-Lappay said. –

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