How to Help Our Grieving Loved Ones This Holiday Season

Glimmering white snowflakes dance across the chilly air. The windows begin to frost as the smoldering fireplace crackles in the background. The smell of fresh baked cookies and cinnamon fills the air. As you sit at the table and look around at your loved ones, you can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. The first holiday season without a loved one is just not the same.

For many, the holiday season is about spending time with friends and family. But for those who have recently lost a loved one, the holidays can be an especially tough time. Constant emphasis on togetherness and joy this time of year tend to exacerbate feelings of loss for those who are grieving. If you or someone you love are grieving a loss or going through a major life change accompanied by feelings of loss (i.e. a divorce, having a miscarriage, being laid off from work, etc.), the information below will help you understand the grieving process and what each stage entails.

Stages of Grief

While grieving looks different for everyone, it is most commonly broken down into five stages. The five-stage Kübler-Ross model was originally proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, and is the most widely known explanation of the grieving process. Though it is helpful to understand each phase, they may not necessarily all appear or appear in this order for everyone. Grief is a highly-individualized process. According to the Kübler-Ross model, the five stages of grief include:

  1. Denial – During this stage, the person grieving may avoid conversations about their recent loss or life-changing situation. Especially if this is the first holiday season without a loved one, the grieving individual may avoid family and friends who want to reminisce or talk about their loved one’s passing. During the denial phase, the person who suffered a loss may refuse to believe it actually happened and/or talk about the recently deceased without acknowledging his or her passing.
  2. Anger – Generally, once the grieving party’s reality begins to set in, they begin to ask the question, “Why me?” or “Why them?” This line of questioning often turns to resentment and occasionally even rage regarding disrupted future plans. While the anger may be directed at the world in general, hospital/funeral home staff, family members, and close friends tend to receive the brunt of the grieving person’s wrath as they are often nearby when the griever lashes out in frustration. Feeling exasperated, a grieving person may also begin to question their religious beliefs during the anger stage.
  3. Bargaining – Often after moving through the denial and anger stages, a grieving individual may resort to bargaining with their God or higher power. For instance, a person who just lost a loved one may pray to have one more day with them in exchange for becoming a better person, giving to the needy, etc. Bargaining may sound like, “I promise never to ask for anything again if only I can hear my mother’s voice one last time” or a similar proposed exchange. Since the bargaining may not take place out loud, it may be difficult to identify when someone you love is going through this stage of the grieving process.
  4. Depression – After a grieving individual realizes the permanence of his or her loss and begins to adjust to his or her new reality, depression may begin to set in. According to Kübler-Ross, these feelings of depression may stem from the loss itself or the financial, situational, and/or family role changes that come along with it. The depression stage often towards the end of the grieving process, as it is often seen as necessary for achieving closure in the final stage.
  5. Acceptance – For those fortunate enough to reach the acceptance phase, this final stage of grieving brings a sense of peace and comfort. Especially for those grieving the loss of a loved one, this stage also brings about healing. The survivor begins to move through the grief, which may involve finally going through the deceased’s belongings, being able to talk about the loved one’s passing, and/or reflecting on memories they shared. Unfortunately, those who become stuck in a previous stage of grief may not have the chance to experience total acceptance of their circumstances.


How to Help 

If someone close to you is struggling with grief this holiday season, the best thing you can do is try to learn more about what they are going through. It is important to understand that not everyone grieves the same way. Some people may experience more emotions than listed above. Others may only work through some of the previously mentioned stages. Grieving is not a one-size-fits-all process and the order and duration may look different for everyone. If you want to help your loved one during this time, be patient and let them tell you what they need. Whether they want you to just listen, sit and be present with them, or help them with chores and errands, the best way to help is simply by checking on them and trying to understand what they are going through during this difficult time of year. For more do’s and don’ts, check out “When Grief Comes Home for the Holidays” by Nancy Schimelpfening here.


By:  Michaela Patoilo

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