Stacy Birney, Graduate Clinical Intern " />

Experiencing Grief Over the Holiday Season (and into the New Year)

Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961, p. 77)

Grief is a tricky beast of a thing. It can come when you’re least expecting it, as you head into a store that you used to visit with a family member now gone, or perhaps running into an individual that represents a relationship now broken. It also can come when you do expect it, particularly over holidays, birthdays or anniversaries. Over the holidays, the cultural expectation of joy, rest, and merriment can be too much to bear when dealing simultaneously with loss. How many that are dealing with loss feel the need to ‘fake it,’ plastering on a smile for the family dinner, but aching and empty within? How many show up to work feeling the need to respond to co-workers or acquaintances with a brief, opaque answer—‘Oh, my holiday was good. What about you?’—skirting away from the socially unacceptable reality that this time of year can be filled with deep pain.

Grief comes in many forms. As a social culture, we have not been taught well how to mourn. We have been offered a very narrow definition of bereavement, clouding its true breadth. Grief may be due to loss of a loved one, yes, but it also is so many other things. Grief can be over any type of loss—loss of a relationship soured or altered, an estranged marriage, a parent struggling with mental illness or physical/cognitive decline, a child’s absence, miscarriage, loss of a job, a home, or traditions once held dear. Enduring a global pandemic has given humanity many new opportunities to mourn. 

The Grief Experience

The experience of grief is vast. Emotionally, grief gives us the opportunity to feel anger, yearning, disbelief, loneliness, shock, fear, defeat, inadequacy, guilt, shame, helplessness, anxiety, sadness, relief, and a slew of other emotions simultaneously. However, grief may also bring with it ambivalence, apathy, or trauma from losing someone that stirs both negative and positive feelings, perhaps through the death of an abusive parent, suicide, or the loss of an unreconciled relationship. The fear that the strength of emotion will overcome and never end is quite common, as those struggling through grief often name it as the fear of the ‘emotional abyss’ or ‘emotional cliff.’ Can you relate? 

Grief can also bring with it physical sensations, cognitions, and behaviors unique to mourning. Physically, you may sense tightness in your chest or throat, breathlessness, an oversensitivity to noise, or extreme fatigue. Grief can heavily affect cognition—leading to forgetfulness, confusion, preoccupation, or distortions of reality. Behaviorally, sleep and appetite are often disturbed. One may avoid reminders that are too painful, socially withdrawal, or experience restless hyperactivity. Though what has been named here is by no means an exhaustive list, notice that there is a wide range of the grief experience that may be possible. Ultimately, the stronger the attachment and bond to the person or loss, the stronger the grief reaction will be (Worden, 2018). 

A Healing Model: Four Tasks

Healing from grief is not linear, nor does it contain a specific timeline in which to expect the recovery as ‘over.’ And wouldn’t it be nice if it did? Though many are familiar with five stages of dying proposed by Elizabeth Kubler Ross— denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—I would like to propose another model well researched, yet not as well known. J. William Worden, PhD, ABPP (2018), an expert on mourning, describes mourning as the process in which to heal from one’s emotional experience of grief. Within Worden’s model of mourning, there are four tasks in which one can actively participate. Cycling through and revisiting these tasks is expected, and working through the tasks simultaneously is also a possibility. Here they are in listed form (parentheses added are mine):

  • Task I: To Accept the Reality of the Loss
  • Task II: To Process the Pain of Grief
  • Task III: To Adjust to a World Without the Deceased (&/or the Loss)
    • This includes external, internal, and spiritual adjustments. Making meaning after the loss is a crucial step here.
  • Task IV: To Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased (&/or What Has Been Lost) in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life

To actively process grief through mourning, think of the acronym TEAR: To accept the reality, Experience the pain, Adjust to life without the loss, and Reinvest in a new reality.

Infographic borrowed from

Those with spiritual convictions can also turn to their community of faith for support, comfort, and hope. Within Christianity, the Scriptures speak to grief often in both the Old Testament* as well as the New Testament.** Not only does God show himself as able to comfort us in our grief, he endured it in human form. Christians are encouraged to grieve with hope (1 Thess. 4:13; Rev 21:4), holding the encouragement of what Christ offers in tandem with—not in place of—what’s been lost. This tension can be held best through active processing such as prayer, journaling, and connection with a faith leader and group of support.


In summation, I will leave you with an analogy often explored in grief therapy. Experiencing grief can be likened to the waves of the ocean, knowing that at certain times one may expect a wave of grief to come (over the holidays or anniversaries). Other times, a wave may hit hard with an unexpectedly large surge of complex emotion. When we first have a loss, it feels as though you’re in a middle of hurricane, on the shore, being pounded by big waves of grief. Here, you can’t catch your breath and wonder if you’ll drown in the sorrow. The concern of experiencing such deep waves feels like an emotional riptide, threatening to carry you away into the darkness of grief where it may feel like avoidance is the only way. Instead of struggling against the riptide, let it take you to the emotions that need expressed, knowing that eventually the strength of the current will dissipate. Sunny days will come, as will cloudy days, when the ocean returns to the lapping of gentle waves. Ultimately, mourning is a process that is long-term with the culmination of it being a new life, not a pre-grief state (Worden, 2018). We may not be able to choose our losses in life, but we can choose to actively participate in our mourning as we work toward a new reality.

*OT Passages on Mourning: Ps 23:4, 30:5, 34:18, 145:14; Jer 31:13; Isa 53:3-5, 61:1-3

**NT Passages on Mourning: Mt 5:4; Rom 5:1-5, 12:15; 2 Cor 1:3-4; 1 Thess. 4:13; Rev 21:4

Lewis, C. S. (1961). A grief observed. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Worden, J. W. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (5th ed.). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.


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