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Photo Credit: Thanks to Isabella and Laura Fischcer @twinsfisch on Unsplash

This year is going to be different, in fact it needs to be different. If you have been feeling tired, irritable, tearful, and filled with dread of the holidays–you may be experiencing grief. You are not alone, there is literally a world of sadness right now. We are all navigating some form of loss through the pandemic. Although it may be tempting to go full speed ahead (Griswold) into the holidays. Don’t. It won’t work to put lots of tinsel and lights on your feelings and pretend everything is okay. When your “insides don’t match the outsides” everything feels off. Try not to fret, even though we need to accept our grief I believe it is still possible to find happiness this holiday season. 

The Power of AND

The great news for us in 2020 is that we can feel both happiness and sorrow. Both of these feelings are true this year. In fact, positive and negative feelings are the building blocks to emotional balance. It is not only “normal” to feel pleasant and unpleasant feelings at the same time it is also healthy. If you ignore, deny, or minimize the grief, you will shut out your happiness. We would all do well to prepare this month to feel a mix of pleasant and unpleasant feelings. You are feeling the mix because you are paying attention and you care. You care about traditions, loved ones, universal suffering, and this has been one heck of a year. Caring is always in season.

Caring Differently

For some of us, the inclination is to GO BIG OR GO HOME. The motivation is “I will try to compensate for all of the bad things by making everyone in my family extra happy this year.” This well intentioned plan will backfire. If you try to make the holiday bigger or even “just like” it always has been for your family you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Finding happiness this holiday season is possible, despite the pandemic. We need to scale back, permit our feelings, and show our caring differently. Stillness and reflection will help us discover a meaningful way to incorporate our mixed feelings.

Grieving social loss

Photo Credit: Element5Digital on Unsplash.
Less family and friends at the Chanukah table may add to grief during the holidays.

People of all faiths set expectations of big family gatherings, well practiced traditions, and generous gift exchanges. But this year is not like previous years, and we will need to change our expectations. Increased Covid cases means decreased gatherings and cancelled parties. People are out of the stores and onto their screens. Despite the desire to engage, the energy is just not there. Managing our health and safety during a pandemic is exhausting. In order to pursue happiness this season we can give ourselves the gift of a mind-shift. It seems we will need to make room for grief.

Grieving loss through death

A “Grief Tree” can help with grief during the holidays.

Many of us are grieving the death of friends and loved ones this year. Last Winter I was grieving the sudden death of my brother, Chris. He spoke of Christmas all year long, and the anxious anticipation of Christmas felt overwhelming to me. Seeing holiday lights triggered crying jags instead of joy. After much contemplation, and many tearful trips to Hobby Lobby, I arrived at a peaceful change. I created a “grief tree.” My family and I couldn’t quite connect with the traditional Christmas Tree without Chris. The holiday decorations needed to be different and simplified, and they were. My “grief tree” was a comfort. It was a cultivated mix of old and new ornaments that invited my brother to our celebration. When I found a way to honor my grief during the holidays it gave me permission to be happy too.

Reflection: What change can help you find happiness this year?


Being present to our grief during the holidays allows us to appreciate what we have. We can be like the Whos down in Whoville who discover that the holidays are not about the things, it is about appreciating what and who we already have in our lives. Take some time out of your preparation to peacefully reflect on what matters most to you and your family this year. Allow yourself to notice when you are doing too much or doing something that does not serve your intention for this unusual year.

For people of faith, this is an opportunity to dig deep into the whys of the holidays. What anchors your faith and how can you express it safely during the pandemic? Inspirational reading, alternative traditions, and a renewed commitment to what truly resonates for your family will support you through the holiday. Allow yourself to get creative with your traditions to affirm your spirituality.

Reflection: What remains when everything is changed?

Compassion and Grief during the holidays

The beauty of fully experiencing joy and sorrow is the potential for compassion. The whole world is suffering. We are separate but together in this universal experience of feeling grief during the holidays. How do you choose to honor our collective grief? Let’s all expand our generosity to others in a purposeful way. Here are some ideas about compassionate responding this season:

  • Give smize. Smize are smiles that reach your eyes so it can be felt and visible while wearing your mask.
  • Initiate connection (Calls, FaceTime, Zoom, Emails).
  • Pray and/or meditate on compassion.
  • Donate to meaningful organizations instead of gift exchange.
  • Tip well and often.

Suffering is part of our human experience, let’s pay attention and grow through this painful pandemic. We all have a choice to become bitter or better. Let’s unite in caring so we become better.

Reflection: How will you share compassion this season?

Wrapping Up

I’m offering this post because finding an alternative way to navigate grief during the holidays last year was helpful to me. In sharing my story with others I have heard other unique ways to acknowledged mixed feelings over the holidays. I would love to hear your ideas. What will you do this year to honor the losses in your life from the pandemic? I am confident that by accepting your feelings of grief you will create space for true happiness too.

Health and Happiness,

Dr. Lisa Marotta