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  • Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan

The Holidays, Covid, and Grief




Everything is different right now, but the holiday season makes these differences especially pronounced. This time of year is typically marked by traditions and time with loved ones and ideas of magic and unmitigated joy. There is often a gap between our holiday expectations and the reality (How many parents have spent 45 minutes getting their kids dressed for the first snowfall with ideas of a picturesque afternoon building snowmen and sledding only to have kids start crying within 5 minutes about being cold or hungry or about how their brother took the red sled and now they are stuck with the blue one). However, this year the discrepancy between reality and our fantasies of what the holidays “should be” is particularly pronounced. Instead of holiday parties and big family gatherings, most of us are highly focused on issues like: Staying safe and healthy; taking care of loved ones; managing a significant loss; or stretching a tight budget to cover holiday indulgences.  


Covid has taken a lot from us this year. And while most of us are still trying to make the holidays as merry as possible, know that it is also okay to find space to grieve all that is lost or not as it should be. Often, we don’t feel entitled to our grief- we feel like someone else has it worse than we do, or we think that we need to be happy to show strength for our children, or we absorb ourselves with the practicalities of each day to distract us from what is not there.  But the losses we are experiencing right now are important, no matter how small.  The traditions we have around holidays ground us in our values and help connect us to the people we love.  They are milestones that we use to mark the passage of time from one year to the next.  Disruption to these rituals can make changes and absences and sacrifices more pronounced.  The loss inherent in that is significant.  


And many of our children are also grieving right now.  They are sad about missing family members or disappointed about necessary changes to favorite traditions. This year has forced them to adapt repeatedly to fast-changing circumstances and they have had their resiliency tested to great levels. Most parents will do the best they can to bring joy and excitement to this holiday season, which can bring everyone comfort. But try not to rush to cover over other feelings your children may be having as well.  First, give them space to feel these losses.  Offer them comfort and acceptance. Validate their feelings and reflect on your own.  Use it as a source of connection.  


There are many things we can do to bring joy to the holidays this year, and there will likely be bright spots among the current crappy circumstances.  Looking for silver linings and holding hope for the future is important. But let’s also give ourselves room to acknowledge everything else we may be experiencing right now, such as sadness, anger, or disappointment.  And also know that despite the loneliness that many feel right now, no one is alone in this experience.  This is a shared loss.  The pandemic and all the circumstances associated with it are impacting everyone right now.  Yes, we are all affected in different ways, but no one is untouched.  And yes, there is still room for hope and joy and optimism, and that is valuable and we should make space for that too.  But first, give yourself some space to grieve for all that is not as it is supposed to be right now. 


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