Staying Strong When You Miss Them the Most: Coping with Grief During the Holidays

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The title is called “staying strong” but let me be clear. Staying strong does not mean harboring all emotion to get through Christmas dinner without crying. You don’t need to block out, hide from, or deny your grief. Many people wrongly equate “staying strong” with not breaking down in public, speaking emotionlessly or avoiding the topic of grief altogether. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to “stay strong” in this way.

Staying strong to me means continuing to be your most authentic self in the midst of loss. This means acknowledging the pain you feel is valid and a part of who you are now. It means if you need to cry at dinner, then that’s not called “breaking down.” That’s a perfectly acceptable testimony of your love for that person.

It’s been 5 years since my mom died and it’s true that time makes coping easier. However, time will never be able to fill the hole in my heart. I’ve learned though that when I allow myself to be open with my emotions, despite the fact it may make others uncomfortable (especially people who weren’t hugged enough as children), I can experience the pain in a gentler way. I used to refuse displaying any sort of hurt feeling in front of others the first few years after she died. The first Mother’s Day without her, I spent the entire day alone, sobbed uncontrollably for a few hours, listened to one voicemail from her and then broke a picture frame in a fit of rage. Fast forward to this past Mother’s Day and I was able to open a box of her belongings and simultaneously feel deeply heartbroken but also extremely grateful that I had 21 years with such an incredible woman. The difference between the two holidays is the amount of time passed and the permission I now give myself on a regular basis to openly and unapologetically miss her.

So now that the winter holidays are here again, I want to specifically give you permission to openly and unapologetically miss your person even though it’s supposed to be the most magical time of year.

The rest of this blog post will share a few ways to cope with loss during this season. These are tactics that have helped me in the past so maybe they’ll help you too.  

Ways to Help Yourself Cope with Grief

HONOR THEM PUBLICLY. Grief is uncomfortable and man oh man is it hard to grieve when we live in a discomfort-adverse society!! To quote Bill Burr, we are constantly taught “Deny your emotions and act like you have answers!” So even when we want to express ourselves, a lot of the time we’re surrounded by people who think vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Ah! She’s leaking out of her eyes again! Must. Make. Awkward. Jokes. To. Lighten. Mood! RESIST. CATCHING. FEELS. *insert photo of Mr. Crocker freaking out about fairies* But let me tell you, despite their inability to cope with their own internal trauma, your grief does not have to be a secret.

One of the best ways you can cope with loss is dedicating time to honor your person. When you make time to outwardly celebrate your person you perform two acts of service for yourself:

The first act of service: You give yourself a healthy emotional outlet.

I find sometimes it’s difficult to “make time” to talk about my mom with other people unless she explicitly comes up in conversation. It’s also hard to find an appropriate outlet when I’m all of a sudden overcome with emotion missing her in the middle of the afternoon.

Mailman: Here’s your package.


Mailman: …………..So should I just sign for you?

The result is bottled emotion. But the holidays are actually a perfect time to pop that bottle! People gather to give, share, and reminisce with each other. You aren’t ruining the mood by toasting to the ones you lost and sniffling a little along the way. You’re acknowledging how grateful you are to have known such an incredible person in this lifetime. Your sadness is simply a symptom of genuine love.

The second act of service: You make it known to others that talking about your person is fair game.

I noticed that right after my mom died, many people (other than my nana) must have decided that bringing up my mom or even their own mom in conversation was as wrong as uttering the name “Voldemort.” The first year after her passing I was ok with this because I was still under the society-induced illusion that if I EVER cried in public I would be condemned as weak and pitiful. And I knew if someone brought her up I would lose it on the spot. However, this little charade forced me to pretend everything was ok. But acting like you have not been through traumatic sh*t when you have is a really great way to rot your insides.

There’s a reason we go to therapy, befriend good listeners, journal & write poetry. It’s cathartic and healing to outwardly express your internal strife. So even though you may get choked up, celebrate your person. Let others know how much you miss them and you might be surprised what comfort people can bring you when they know it’s ok for them to be vulnerable too.

And this honorary display doesn’t have to be a long speech you give at dinner. This can be anything from making a donation in their name, to setting off fireworks (legally!), writing them a letter, making their favorite dessert or shot gunning a beer in the shower while blaring Katy Perry! Just make time for whatever it is that keeps their memory alive.

USE THE PRESENT TENSE IF THAT’S WHAT FEELS RIGHT. My mom passed away on a Wednesday, her funeral was Saturday and I was back at school Monday morning. It was all so blurry it felt unreal and for a while I had a tough time saying anything about her in the past tense. I remember one day I said, “My mom always tells me to take it one day at a time” and the person replied, “You mean ‘told you.’” Shocked, I didn’t reply for a very a long time until I eventually said, “Right. She used to tell me.” Okay, for one thing the audacity of that human was SKY HIGH. We’ll chalk it up to them being socially awkward. But in all fairness, I said this knowing damn well it wasn’t the proper tense. But I couldn’t help it. I figured I was in denial. But the following Spring a fellow classmate’s mother also passed away and she told me she did the same thing. “I still talk about her in the present tense because I believe she’s still here influencing me.” To me, that felt right. Eventually, I moved to past tense but for a while the present tense was my comfort zone. The point is, do and say what feels right to you. There are no rules for the grieving journey and no perfectly prescribed order to healing. Honor your emotions and in the words of my Mama Debbie, take it one day at a time.  

EAT, SLEEP, CRY, MOVE, REPEAT. Maybe the most underrated tactics for coping with loss is keeping up with your basic needs. Eating nutrient-dense foods, getting high quality sleep, finding outlets for your emotions, and getting adequate amount of movement are all vitally important to your mental well-being. If you asked me to pick just one to focus on, I don’t think I could because they are all equally high priorities for wellness. That would be like asking a mechanic which part of the car could you get away with not having: the gas, brakes, engine, or wheels. Sorry, but you need all of the above to function properly! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

HAVE A CAR THERAPY SESSION. I saw a post the other day that said: “Parked car conversations are low key therapy sessions” and I have to say that I whole heartedly agree. Whenever I have high emotions I always go straight to my car. Now before you freak out, I totally agree that driving while angry or crying is NOT safe. However, getting into your PARKED car, and playing sad music while you cry is perfectly safe and acceptable. Sometimes you just need to get it all out while deafening music blares in the background. And if you don’t feel like listening to “I’m Just A Kid” by Simple Plan on repeat, call your therapist, friend, mentor, parent, coach, or sign up for TalkSpace (text therapy) and talk it out. Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence.

Ways to Help Your Partner Cope with Grief

If you’re reading this as a person who has a friend or partner who has recently lost a loved one, I would like to share with you a few tactics for supporting that person through this season of grief. Some of these are strategies my fiancé has employed the past few years and I can tell you, they’ve made all the difference.

CHOSE TO BELIEVE IN ANGELS. I genuinely believe in the afterlife, spirits, and a greater force of nature beyond human understanding. My fiancé believes the Miami Dolphins will one day win the Super Bowl. To me, ghosts seem a little more realistic than the Dolphins making playoffs anytime soon. Alex would disagree and say it’s absolutely absurd to believe in haunted houses let alone personal guardian angels. But even so, he’s the first one to agree with me when I say, “I think Debbie sent me a sign.” “She sure did babes.” he’ll say. And in return, I defend his Fin loyalty to the even the snarkiest Patriot’s fan.

If your partner lost someone and they believe in the afterlife whoo-hooery, then for their sake you can believe in it too. It’s more about support than about being right. You can debate politics and poor NFL draft pick decisions until you’re blue in the face. But for the sake of their healing, let’s just all agree there are angels in the outfield.

DO NOT HAND THEM A TISSUE. If your partner gets worked up about missing their loved one, do not offer them a tissue. Giving them a tissue sends the subliminal message of “please stop crying.” Whether you want the tears to stop because you hate to see them hurting or because YOU are uncomfortable, it’s not your job to end their snot-fest. Trust that if they need to blow a boogie, they will request a hanky. Otherwise, let them fully release. Embrace them, rub their back, ask them questions. But don’t issue that tissue until they ask.

ASK FOR A STORY. I mentioned previously that people tend to be wary about bringing up my mom. I am much more at ease with talking about her now but sometimes I feel like it still makes people feel twitchy. This makes it hard to reminisce. Part of keeping your person’s memory alive is being able to share it with others and if you can’t do that without awkward silences or others contributing, it feels more lonely than it does cathartic. So I encourage you to ask your partner to tell you a story about their person and allow them to go into great detail if they feel like it. Listen intently, ask questions, and share your own stories if you have them. Don’t get discouraged if they decline. They might not be ready to outwardly reminisce yet and that’s totally ok. But there’s a good chance they are more than willing to share their beloved memories and will be so grateful you asked.

TALK TO THE SPIRITS LIKE YOU MEAN IT. This one might be hard for people who don’t believe in the afterlife. But it can be a way you establish a safe space for your partner especially if they are having a tough moment during the holidays. The semester after my mom passed, in the middle of walking to dinner with my friend I started to cry. This was odd for me to do in public and I quickly became ashamed that I couldn’t control myself. My friend walked me back to my room, brought me dinner and before they left they looked me straight in the eye and then up at the ceiling and said, “Hey Deb, I just want you to know that we all miss you down here. But for the record I’d like to say that we’re so happy to have Paris back this semester. She’s probably not quite as cool as you were in college but she’s pretty damn great.” I couldn’t believe what I just heard but from that moment on I knew that was a person I could count on for support.

CHANNEL YOUR INNER CHEERLEADER. My favorite Maya Angelo quote is “People won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” The day of my mom’s funeral I was greeting people as they walked into the church being overly peppy like I was a carnival worker. I had this fake smile plastered across my face and then right as the mass was about to start I ran out of the church. The next few moments faded to black. When I came to, I was crouched in a corner of some hallway and my then boyfriend (now fiancé) was kneeling in front of me with my hands in his. My ears were ringing, sound was muffled and he was blurry because I was crying. I couldn’t tell you what he said if my life depended on it, but I remember feeling safe. Somehow he coaxed me back into the church and I gave her eulogy without passing out. If you asked him what he said to me he’d tell you he doesn’t remember either, but that he knew I needed a pep talk.

Another way to cheer on your partner is with small gestures. That first year after she passed I never asked anyone for anything and would repeatedly say “I’m fine!” in that high-pitched whiney Ross Gellar voice. But my best friend decided to ignore that statement one day and dropped off a 6 pack of beer at my door with a fake doctor’s note that said: “Doctor orders: sleep 10 hours a day, watch all of your favorite shows and eat everything in sight.” It made me laugh out loud. It was like getting a big hug from her even though she wasn’t there. The words don’t matter as much as your warmth does. Say whatever comes to your mind with intention and generosity and you’re on your way to being their greatest cheerleader.

Cheers to you and your person.

I hope that you found some value in these stories and suggestions. Please feel free to share ways in which you cope with loss in the comments below. I’d love to hear how you celebrate your person. Tonight, I’ll be celebrating my mom with a Rolling Rock (her favorite) and a good book by the fireplace. Cheers, Debbie.

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