Christmas Grief: 6 Mindful Ways to Cope At Family Gatherings

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Posted: December 20, 2022

Grief And Family Christmas Gatherings

Even the most loving families can experience friction when they are grieving, especially at Christmas. Family members may not all agree on how to remember the special person you are mourning. One person wants to reminisce, while others don't want to mention the person at all. 

Add to that the fact that grief can fray your nerves? Basically, you have a home full of people that are hurting and grieving in their own special way. Is it any wonder that you feel like you need to walk on eggshells?

A little compassion can go a long way in dealing with family drama when it arises at Christmas. This is not always easy, and there is no guarantee that everyone in your tribe will see eye to eye. But doing your best to care for yourself will help you feel more in control and empowered to handle your own challenging emotions. It can also soften your heart, so you can feel more connected and caring towards the other people in your family who are hurting, too.

Rather than trying to achieve perfection during what can be a very messy time of year, think of how you engage with yourself and others as practice rather than performance. Learning new coping skills can take time, but there is no time like the present to start. Here are a few mindful ways you can cope with grief at family Christmas gatherings this year:

1. Practice self-kindness, first.

Navigating the waves of grief will not get any easier if you are hard on yourself. Offer yourself a few nice words, such as “This is hard, but I’ve got this,” or “This hurts, and I know I am doing my best.” This will slow down your stress response and put you in a better mind-state. Then you can problem-solve instead of reacting and lashing out at others.

Be kind to your body, too. Make sure you get plenty of good sleep, avoid alcohol, and take time out to do self-care activities. Go for a walk, exercise, meditate or do something creative such as knit, play music, dance or paint.

If you need support in creating self-care practices for your specific grief journey, consider joining me in my online grief group, Awaken. It is an amazing resource full of helpful tools and kind people who will understand you. We have a ton of holiday grief resources there!

2. Practice compassion for others.

If everyone in your family is grieving, then everyone is in need of an extra dose of compassion. This does not mean that you have to put up with abusive behavior, but it can help to consider each person’s point of view so you can understand why they are the way they are, and then decide how you want to relate to them at gatherings (which may include steering clear!).

3. Practice mindfulness of emotion.

Grief is made up of countless emotions, thoughts, and feelings. There will be times when you will want to allow your emotions to play out – for instance having a good cry - and other times where you may want to practice emotion regulation, which is different than suppression or denial.

Pay attention to physical cues in your body, and before you react habitually, pause a moment, and decide how you want to be with the emotion. Give yourself permission to respond from a place of peace, even if that means walking away from conflict, instead of running towards the fire. Try this meditation designed to help you cope with difficult emotions during grief.

4. Practice saying “no” (or “maybe” or “not right now”).

There is so much “doing” during the holiday season, very few people have time to just be, much less enjoy! This year, remember that just because someone asks you to do something, it doesn’t mean you have to take it on.

Short of taking care of those who depend on you for survival, if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of saying “no” to something you don’t want to do, see what it would be like to say “maybe,” or “not right now,” and then really consider what you want to do.

5. Practice asking for help or support.

You don’t actually have to do everything by yourself. Whether it is scheduling a few extra appointments with your therapist, to help with your mental wellness, booking a cleaning service the day before the in-laws come to prevent a family squabble, or asking your partner's sibling to bring the yams so you have one less thing to cook, ask for help. Most people like to lend a hand, but don’t know what to do unless you ask.

6. Find your safe space (literally).

Whether it is a walk around the neighborhood, your car, or the bathroom, plan ahead to have a place where you can go to be alone and decompress. Sometimes just a few minutes of quiet with yourself can be a powerful reset if you are feeling on edge. 

Sending peace to you if you are grieving at Christmas...

Even if you just pick one of these to practice you will be able to create a little more space for peace and equanimity even in the most difficult circumstances. While it would be nice if everyone could just get along, grief can make that goal a little more challenging for some families.

The fact that you are seeking out this wisdom means that you know you can be a point of peace during the family Christmas gathering. My hope is that these practices will help you navigate whatever challenges you encounter.

I wish you peace and less suffering as you navigate the Christmas Season.

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Living with Grief and the guided journal, From Grief To Peace. She is the creator of the Mindfulness & Grief System that is featured in the Handbook of Grief Therapies (2023) and is the founder of Awaken, a mindfulness-based online grief support group. Heather also hosts the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, and offers mindfulness-based grief support online through her organization, the Mindfulness & Grief Institute. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She currently lives in Falling Waters, WV.

You might also like

Get compassionate live online grief support with author Heather Stang

Meditation | Journaling | Self-care | Sharing