How to Mourn a Loved One During the Holidays

Understanding the difference between grief and mourning can help you navigate a difficult season with self-compassion and grace.

Posted in , Dec 12, 2019

Grieving at Christmas

As the holiday season unfolds, with all of the memories that come alongside the holiday traditions and family gatherings, many of us may feel challenged by difficult emotions. Anyone who has experienced a loss, whether recent or long ago, can speak to the particular ways in which grief can fall heavily onto our shoulders at this time of year, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere.

Grief is the universal emotional consequence of loving someone—as the medieval Jewish poet Judah HaLevi put it, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” Experts agree that to move through grief means to embrace an intentional process of mourning.

But wait, what’s the difference? Often, we use the terms “grief” and “mourning” interchangeably, but they are actually two aspects of the same emotional experience of loss.

In an article on this subject, the grief counselor and author Alan Wolfelt calls mourning “grief gone public.” Grief is the private set of emotions, the “constellation of internal thoughts and feelings,” that we encounter when someone we care about has died.

Mourning, then, is what we do with those feelings, how we express them in the world. “To heal your grief, you must mourn it,” writes Wolfelt. 

Authentic mourning takes different forms for different people, but a healthy mourning process often has these elements:

1) Ample time, without pressure to “move on” or “get over it.”

2) Permission to acknowledge the full range of emotions involved, including anger.

3) Connections with people and resources that can offer support.

4) Self-compassion for when grief builds up and causes a mourning “setback.”

5) Healthful strategies like proper sleep, nutrition and hydration.

Understanding the difference between grief and mourning can help you create space for your feelings, especially at this time of year that often calls you into public, emotionally laden situations.

Above all, meet yourself where you are, and welcome your healthy mourning process as you might embrace a beloved holiday guest—a presence that has the potential to lift you up right when you need them most.

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