This holiday season, give yourself the grace to grieve

Give up on perfection this holiday season. Experts say it’s OK to not be OK, even on Christmas

As Christmas draws near, so does the pressure to have a picture-perfect holiday, a day when everyone is together, warm and loving, happy and smiling. But our celebrations don’t have to be so stressful. In fact, experts say we should give ourselves the grace to be grumpy during the holiday season — particularly amid a global pandemic. 

This year will be the second Christmas with COVID-19 circulating around us. The death toll currently stands at 777,000 in the United States, which means that millions of people are grappling with the recent loss of a loved one. Even when the world is not in the grip of a pandemic, for many, the holidays can resurrect grief. 

If you add a kind of toxic perfectionism on top of these painful emotions, the holiday season can add up to “a hideous storm for trying to be happy,” according to grief expert David Kessler. That’s why he’s spent years trying to disabuse people of “the Hallmark image of the holidays.”

“Most of us feel like our families are not quite as happy and loving as that Hallmark family is. It’s a time that we often compare and come up short,” he said.

Kessler — who is the author of six books, including the bestseller “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” — encourages us to quit the comparison game and readjust our expectations.

“Realize that the (image of a) loving, perfect holiday was never real anyway,” he said.

Walking through the valley

To illustrate this point, Kessler described a recent experience on social media. After seeing a friend’s holiday photos online, he commented on how happy everyone looked. His friend replied that it was the 10th take and that her aunt and brother had been fighting — and it was taken moments before her brother stormed off.  

“But we look online and we see everyone has it together but us,” Kessler noted. “It’s all such an illusion.” 

Even without social media, people would likely struggle to process painful emotions, since American culture is so focused on achievement and success, Kessler added.

“We don’t know how to go through the valleys anymore,” he said.

Not only should we understand that lives are full of contrasts — dark and light times, highs and lows — but we should acknowledge that we have to walk through the valleys and give those around us the space to do the same.  

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Going through hard times is essential to getting out of them, Kessler said, adding that “we can’t heal what we don’t feel.” 

That said, we also shouldn’t generalize our pain with ideas or words like “I’ll always feel this way.” We can remind ourselves that, though this holiday is hard, future ones might not be, he said.

And if we are struggling with negative feelings, we shouldn’t judge or berate ourselves for it, said Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist who specializes in studying the connection between brain function and various mental states.

“To take a page out of mindfulness … you allow yourself to feel these feelings but in a nonjudgmental way,” he said.

That means you shouldn’t get upset with yourself for being upset. Simply observe that you are upset. Don’t try to push the feeling away — let it come and go, like a cloud floating through the sky. 

“You allow yourself to feel the feelings but you don’t get overly reactive to them,” said Newberg, explaining that this, in turn, helps to prevent certain regions of our brain from becoming overly reactive, as well. 

You also shouldn’t try to force someone else who is grieving a loss to cheer up, Kessler noted.

Everyone wants to be seen “not just in our good times but in our bad times,” he said. “Sometimes you just want someone to sit quietly with you.” 

Neurons that fire together, wire together

There’s an old adage from neuropsychology: What fires together, wires together. In other words, neurons that are activated a lot will start to form pathways in your brain; once those grooves are there, it’s easy to slip into them. 

So while it’s important to allow ourselves and others the space for negative feelings, dwelling on them isn’t the answer either — in fact, it can pave the way for longer-term problems. 

“If you have prolonged grief reactions, for months and years, that becomes problematic,” Newberg said, noting that it can create a “different set point” for the brain that can be “very negative for an individual.” 

When it comes to holiday stress, tempering grumpiness with a dose — however small — of positivity can help nudge our brain into a more balanced direction. That being said, we shouldn’t strive to be completely stress-free. A small dose of the hard feelings are good for our brains, too.

Newberg likened it to weight training: dealing with lighter loads of stress prepares us for the heavier loads that inevitably come with major life events. 

Like most things, feelings are about balance. Lab studies show that we don’t want to be overly optimistic because people who are overly optimistic make poor decisions, Newberg said. On the other hand, being critical can sometimes serve a protective function, helping us avoid too much risk. But being overly negative can lead to missed opportunities. 

When it comes to navigating difficult times — including the holidays — we can try to take the middle road through the valley. But if it’s not working, it may also be valuable to simply let stress and grief run their course, said Newberg, recalling the adage “time heals all wounds.”

We can “derive power” from working through our grief, said Newberg.

As Kessler put it, “What we avoid pursues us and what we face transforms us.”