Grief During the Holidays

Carolina Fuentes, LCSW presents at the 2023 NBA Mental Health Professionals Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

In June 2023, a group of diverse mental health professionals were called together to serve on a two-year Mental Health Equity Cohort (MHEC) led by Director of Mental Health and Wellness, Joselyn Spence, MDiv, LPC, ATR.

Throughout December, MHEC members will share a variety of resources and stories to help you navigate through the wintertime, holidays, and beyond. Today’s resource is a narrative on grief, written by Carolina Fuentes.

The holidays may remind us of some of our happiest and most cherished memories. The anticipation of gatherings and rituals has the power to create excitement and a much-needed break from routines. However, sometimes the holidays can be a challenging time for those experiencing grief. The very reasons that bring up joy can be a source of pain.  

Cultural, societal, and personal expectations during the holidays may intensify the loss, the absence, or the realization of what will never be the same. We may feel pressure to carry on with certain traditions, be festive, be social, be available, and be busy when we don’t have the interest or energy to engage, or we may experience guilt at the thought of participating in or enjoying celebrations.  

Grief is a complex experience. It involves many emotions, a spectrum of reactions. It is a process and a non-linear journey. It is subjective and has many expressions. It may include longing, sadness, emotional and physical pain. But it may also represent opportunities for meaning making, connection and growth. Deep grief often reflects deep love.  

Grief may arise in response to various types of losses. Grief after the death of a loved one may show up as loneliness, a sense of emptiness and even despair. Sometimes we grieve deeply the end of relationships, not just those that end but also those who are estranged, broken and may never be the same.  

However, not every experience of grief may involve personal relationships, but also significant life transitions that upend our stability and life as we know it. While grieving, we find ourselves navigating the many adjustments of our loss.  

Some of us have felt the grief of being away from the land where we grew up. Missing our home country has layers of meaning that directly connect to our identity, our heritage, and our culture.  

Yet, this year some of us are entering the holidays with the grief and darkness brought about by the impact of war on families, communities, and the earth. Whether publicly or privately, some of us are experiencing the raw helplessness and heaviness of the result of the lack of love, compassion, and grace around us. The loss of life and destruction around the world can make the holiday season a bittersweet and contradictory experience.  

As we enter this holiday season, I invite you to reflect on what this time may bring up for you and others experiencing grief. I invite you to allow space for grief. Grief honors the people, the relationships, and the experiences that were formative and important to you. There is no need to force ourselves to go through the motions; in the same way we don’t have to opt out of holiday traditions all together to experience grief.  

Instead, I invite you to stay present through the holidays by reflecting on and tending to your needs. Perhaps you will find opportunities to reframe your (and your family’s) expectations, an opportunity to approach certain meetings and traditions differently.  

I invite you to find hope amid grief. To allow for creativity as you explore what is helpful and meaningful. Allow both the tears and the laughter. Connect with those around you by remembering aspects of your loved one or your own story that are inspiring, that bring up gratitude and positive action. Honor the love, compassion and connection that gave way to the complex experience of grief. For many of us grief never ends, but instead how it is felt and understood changes and we continue to grow around our grief. 

May you find courage and tenderness during the holidays. May you be comforted and bring comfort to others. May you feel in your heart the love of God that extends to all humanity and can bring light even to the darkest parts of our grief.  

Be encouraged.  

Carolina Fuentes is a licensed clinical social worker with her own private practice where she provides clinical, educational, and consulting services. She enjoys designing and delivering trainings, writing curriculum, and singing in her church’s community chorale.