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How to Manage Grief and High Expectations During the Holidays

The holidays are typically viewed as a time of immense joy and celebration. This season is focused on surrounding yourself with family and friends, participating in long-standing traditions, and giving and receiving gifts. These activities are great and typically come with happiness, love, and excitement; making it easy to believe that everyone feels cheerful during this time of the year. However, that is not always the case, and those dealing with negative emotions around the holidays often feel alone, ashamed, or disappointed. There are many challenges that someone may be dealing with in the upcoming weeks, including grief, that cause the holidays to feel different than they normally do. Continue reading to learn some strategies for coping with the stress that may arise when your expectations for the holiday season aren’t met.

  • Setting Realistic Expectations

Going into the holiday season with high hopes of joyous activities, stress-free celebrations, and constant positivity can lead to disappointment when reality falls short of those expectations. In order to avoid being let down by how the holidays play out, it is recommended that you set realistic expectations for this time of year and focus on the things that you can control. It’s almost impossible that everything is going to go right- your cookies might burn in the oven, the cat might knock over the christmas tree, you might get into an argument with your mother-in-law, or your significant other might not like the gift you got them; and that’s okay. It is unrealistic to think that the everyday stressors that happen the rest of the year are going to stop during the month of December. Instead, know that things might not always go according to plan, but that doesn’t mean the holiday is ruined. Focus on the parts of the holiday that exceed your expectations and don’t let minor mishaps destroy your holiday spirit.

The holidays are largely about gift giving and acts of kindness, which leads to further expectations around how we can bring happiness to those around us. We often feel obligated to buy gifts for friends and family, which can come with a significant financial burden. It’s important to remember that the thought behind gifts matters way more than their monetary value. True friends and family will be happy simply spending time with you or receiving a sentimental homemade gift. Additionally, you are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Especially when hosting holiday events, we tend to feel the need to please others and make sure they are having a good time, creating unnecessary stress and anxiety. This goes back to focusing simply on what we can control about situations rather than worrying about other people’s thoughts and actions.

Many people also have this false belief that everyone is going to get along perfectly during the holiday season. Unfortunately, this is never how it goes. There are a variety of things that cause tension during the holidays, such as figuring out who to invite to a party, who’s family to spend more time with, and what traditions to maintain. Set boundaries with yourself and with your loved ones and stick to them, not everyone is going to agree with your choices but don’t allow that to ruin your holiday experience. Family drama is still going to exist, and often comes out at the dinner table, but disagreements do not have to derail the entire holiday.

  • Coping with Grief During the Holidays

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that holidays can be extremely difficult. This time of the year is meant for spending time with family and friends, making it glaringly obvious when someone is missing. Whether this is this first holiday without your loved one, or the tenth, grief may be amplified during the holiday season. Experiencing this grief often causes guilt if you don’t feel like you’re in the “holiday spirit”, so it’s important to remember that it’s okay not to be cheery all the time. It’s helpful to acknowledge your feelings rather than trying to ignore them, and ask for help if necessary. Self-care will be important during this time of the year, so make sure you are doing things for yourself and not burning yourself out.

Although the holidays may bring increased grief and sadness, remain open to joy. Sometimes it can feel like we shouldn’t have fun while mourning, but grief and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Just because you allow yourself to celebrate does not mean you are forgetting your loved one. During holiday gatherings, it may feel good to do something to remember the person who is no longer there, such as including a picture of them alongside your holiday decorations, continuing their favorite tradition, or taking the time to reminisce on holiday memories made with them. It can also feel good to create new traditions that remind you of the person you are missing.


  • There is no specific way that the holidays are supposed to look. Families celebrate differently, life stressors get in the way, and setbacks happen unexpectedly. Things will not always go according to plan, but that doesn’t mean the holiday is ruined.

  • Try to stay away from “shoulds” or “musts” during this time of the year, as those statements are just setting you up for disappointment. Instead, go with the flow and remember that you do not have control over most things.

  • The holidays can bring an increase of emotions- both pleasant and unpleasant- and it’s okay to acknowledge when those feelings come up. It’s also possible to feel both joy and sorrow simultaneously.

  • Check-in with yourself on where your stress level is at and don’t let others tell you how you are supposed to feel or act. It’s nearly impossible to be cheery all the time, especially with the added stress that the holidays tend to bring. Take care of yourself and find time to relax.

  • Regardless of how your holidays play out, find joy in the small moments and take part in traditions that make you happy.

Written by,

Alyssa Meixelsperger, LSW



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