• By Joel Streed

Mental health and the holidays: Grieving

November 22, 2021
a white woman on a couch near a holiday tree looking sad, lonely, depressed, looking at her phone

Q: The holidays have always been a stressful time for many of us. This year may be particularly tough to navigate for those affected by the pandemic in myriad ways. How can we help one another through this time of year?

A: As more people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and restrictions have eased, there's more of a celebratory spirit in the air with plans for family meals and holiday gatherings.

With so much to look forward to, it may be easy to cast aside the trauma we've all endured and the grieving process over the past 18 months. Some of us have put important plans on pause, suffered financial burdens, and lost loved ones during the pandemic. Additionally, many people are coming out of isolation and slowly adapting to being around groups again, even if they are spending time with family. 

"Not only is it important to be mindful, respectful and patient with our friends and family who may be experiencing pain and grief this holiday season, but we should do so for ourselves," says Lisa Hardesty, licensed clinical health psychologist, Mayo Clinic Health System. "It's important this year to reflect on what we've endured, what we've learned and what we're grateful for, and we should share those thoughts and feelings with our loved ones."

As our holiday traditions unfold in the coming weeks, be mindful that grief can be triggered by seeing and holding special artifacts, such as ornaments, Christmas stockings, menorahs or special dishes reserved for important events.

"These objects hold incredible meaning because of the memories we associate with them," Dr. Hardesty says.

Everyone's feelings and mindset may be different, so here are some tips for navigating through the holidays:

  • Always lead with empathy. Allow a pause, acknowledge each other’s emotions, and reflect on what you are hearing without offering solutions. For example, you could say "I can imagine this has been difficult for you,” or “You are showing amazing strength as you manage this challenge.”
  • Be mindful of your word choices. Avoid saying phrases such as, "Everything happens for a reason." While well-intentioned, condolences like this minimize feelings and shut down the conversation.
  • Ask questions. Invite your loved ones to share memories and talk about their feelings. Foster an environment of open dialogue, even if those conversations lead to tears. Be open to staying with the emotions and sharing grief.
  • Understand that it's OK to have a "Plan B" during the holidays. It's perfectly acceptable for someone to plan to attend a holiday party, for example, and then decide a gathering would be too overwhelming, whether that be due to fear of the virus, grief over a lost loved one, or any other mental health reason. A "Plan B" example could be for the two of you to have a one-on-one brunch the next morning instead.

"Patience is key this year," says Dr. Hardesty. "Be as kind to yourself as you are to those you love."

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Mayo Clinic Health System consists of clinics, hospitals and other facilities that serve the health care needs of people in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The community-based providers, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive highest-quality physical and virtual health care close to home.