Holiday Grief: Trust Your Strength

December 10, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

On a rainy night, the city at Christmas had a wonderland aspect. A magnificent tree, about the size of Godzilla, adorned Bryant Park. The lions at New York Public Library wore heavy necklaces of fir. Even the railing at Herald Square, next to a ventilation grate where destitute men had set up a privacy screen of umbrellas, was decked with boughs, ribbons, and lights.

I veered from delighted wonder at the tree to professional pride at the library to sudden sorrow at the railing. My eyes moistened.

“Stress, grief, anxiety, anger, hopelessness: holidays are a potpourri of emotions, not all of them joyous,” said Dr. Joshua C. Klapow. He is a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Grief during the holidays is an annual story. I may in fact write one each year, but this time is personal. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are starting hospice care. Both have been the soul of kindness to me. The elder displays the amazing stoicism of the greatest generation. The younger, my age mate, has channeled her feelings into endearing, colorful, childlike soft sculptures. She values solitude and early morning walks in the desert with her golden retriever, Gracie.


“For them, the two who know it’s their last … there are no rules. This Christmas is about whatever your heart wants,” said Klapow.

It’s different for family and friends, according to Klapow. “For them, they are already anticipating the grief. For the two who are terminally ill, it’s about living life to its fullest.” For those who love a dying person, “It is your ultimate gift to go with their flow.”

When I am with them this weekend, I hope to remember and follow that good advice.

A Bad Loop

For anyone, any time of year, “I think the overarching theme that’s not specific to holiday time is our inability to keep realistic expectations of our emotions,” said Kaplow. The sparkling trees, decorated lions, choristers in the subway, and strands of lights send a message of joy. A kind of imperative of joy. But no emotion can arrive on demand, and the nature of emotion is to be mutable, like weather.

People start feeling bad, and then get into a bad loop, said Klapow. “We feel bad that we are not happy.” This, of course, makes it worse. People who are grieving may add another curlique to the bad loop—they feel bad when for a moment they are happy, or they feel bad for not feeling much. They feel guilty.

“The easiest way out is to give yourself permission. Your emotions during the holidays don’t have to be dictated by the holidays,” said Klapow.

Not Dictated

No matter what the calendar may say, “basically this is about not letting your emotions be dictated by the rest of the world.”

He had one last bit of sagacity to offer. “Grief is a fact of life. The more you can try not to fight it during the holidays, the better off you will be.” The worst thing is to second-guess yourself.

Human beings “are hard-wired to survive and to be resilient.” After loss, the best thing to do for the short run is to “allow your mind and body to do what it’s designed to do,” said Kaplow. You are designed to endure. You may safely go on autopilot.