Presence, Not Perfection: Navigating Holiday Grief

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Posted: November 20, 2023

In the thick of grief during the holidays, let's cherish connection over perfection, embracing each moment as it comes with compassion for our selves and others.

As the holiday season approaches, we often find ourselves swept up in a whirlwind of traditions and expectations. In my own childhood, holidays were marked by an almost competitive pursuit of perfection: elaborate meals, extravagant gifts, meticulously planned festivities.

This pursuit, while seemingly festive, masked a deeper, unacknowledged pain - the grief over the loss of my uncle Doug, who died by suicide. We busied ourselves with the superficial, sidestepping the profound need for connection and healing. My family really didn't have the tools back then to face the pain of loss, so I want to pass along my experience in the hope it will help you.

A Shift in Perspective

Now I've learned the true essence of these gatherings. It's not about the flawless execution of traditions or the abundance of material gifts. It's about the heartfelt connections we forge, the shared moments of joy and sorrow, the support we offer each other. By shifting the focus from perfection to presence, we open ourselves to the genuine beauty of the holidays, finding solace and meaning even amidst grief. Let's explore how we can navigate this season with grace, compassion, and authenticity, cherishing each other and our shared experiences more than any idealized version of perfection.

Presence, Not Perfection: Navigating Holiday Grief

Embrace Self-Compassion

Holidays can amplify grief, especially when perfectionism overshadows true connection. Start by setting a gentle intention for self-care. Embrace a self-compassion mantra, something that soothes your soul. Create a personal safe space where you can retreat and reset. This practice isn’t just about enduring the holidays; it’s about nurturing yourself amidst the chaos.

Connect Authentically with Others

Decide how you wish to engage with others, balancing honesty with self-preservation. Equip yourself with a mantra or a planned response to well-meaning but sometimes painful platitudes. Establish a retreat spot – a physical or mental sanctuary – to gather your thoughts and protect your tender heart.

Intentional Imperfection

Intentionally be imperfect. Maybe it's a less-than-perfectly-set table or a store-bought pie instead of homemade. This act of 'half-assing' can be liberating, challenging the norms that demand perfection even in grief.

Honor Your Tears

If tears come, let them flow. Crying is a powerful tool for emotional regulation, not a sign of weakness. It releases chemicals, aiding in rebalancing your stress response and activating your parasympathetic nervous system. Notice how, post-tears, you might feel a sense of calmness, even sleepiness. This is your body's natural way of healing.

Take a Trial and Error Approach

Treat navigating holiday grief as an experiment. Let go of the need for perfection. Discover what alleviates your suffering. Maybe it's altering a tradition or starting a new one. Remember, there's no right way to grieve.

This Too Shall Change

Understand that each year brings a new experience. Next year will be different, offering another chance to practice self-care and perhaps find new joys amidst the sorrow. If something doesn't go right this year, you can change it in the future. In fact, you will change between now and then.

Seek Out Compassionate Grief Support

As we journey through the holiday season, let's remember that it's our shared experiences, our compassion for ourselves and each other, that truly define these moments. If you're seeking a supportive community that understands the complexities of grief, consider joining Awaken, my online grief support program.

Our Thanksgiving morning centering is just one of the many ways we come together to support and uplift each other during these challenging times. In this community, you're not alone. Together, we can navigate the tides of grief with grace, learning to cherish the beauty of presence over the illusion of perfection. Let this holiday season be a testament to our resilience and the power of heartfelt connections.

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.

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