• Danielle Turner LCSW

Moving Through the Holidays with Grief and Trauma

The holiday season is upon us and in full effect. Although this time of year is said to be the happiest time of the year, that is not always the case for everyone. The holidays can increase stress, bring up feelings of loneliness, cause emotional distress, as well as cause intense grief for some, amongst other things. For those who are survivors of trauma, the holidays can be especially hard to move through. The holidays can trigger complicated memories, anxiety and out of control emotions as survivors of trauma may have to face family that were the source of their trauma, were unsupportive or toxic, or did not value the survivors mental and/or personal well-being. Holiday trauma is real. There are ways however, to move through the difficulty of the holidays and take care of yourself.

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Trauma triggers can present themselves without warning and cause emotional distress in the moment. It is helpful to recognize triggers, have coping skills and self-care routines in place when they arise. You may not always know when you will be triggered but having a basic understanding of triggers to emotional distress can be helpful. Some triggers will not present themselves until you are in a particular situation. Once the trigger is realized, try to identify the trigger and how you can remove yourself or find ways to cope while the trigger is present. Triggers can be anything that is a reminder of a traumatic event included but not limited to:



a person

an environment


holiday rituals

religious ceremonies



holiday movies/commercials


Regardless of how irrational your response to a trigger may seem, your body is reacting because it no longer feels safe. This can be both emotionally and physically exhausting. Do not minimize your feelings even if they seem irrational. Give yourself grace. Holiday trauma can look like and include the following signs:


Low mood





Trouble sleeping

Lack of appetite

Increased appetite


Overly emotional


Lack of concentration

Impulsive behaviors


Emotional distress

Another distressing part of the holiday season for some is the loss of a loved one. Celebrating without your loved one may cause you to feel guilty. Holidays after a loss is always hard. Remember the connection with your loved one does not live in your pain, it lives in your love for them, your memories, and the way you live your life. There are things you can do to deal with your grief through the holidays.

Only do what feels right for you -it’s up to you which activities, traditions, and events you can reasonably handle. Be gentle with yourself, you are not obligated to participate.

Accept your feelings – accept whatever feelings you may experience, both up and down. You may feel peace one minute and sadness the next, it’s okay, don’t judge yourself.

Get support - talk to loved ones, friends or seek professional help. Therapy can help you process your grief in a non-judgmental and caring setting.

Honor your loved one – it may help to have a holiday ritual in their memory. Such as light a candle, plant a tree, write a post on social media.

Do something different – different doesn’t mean bad. Plan activities that create new memories, traditions and/or rituals.

Plan ahead – plan comfortable activities ahead of time so you have something to look forward to.

Give back – take action and give back. You can honor your loved one with things like making a donation in their name to a charity or volunteering.

Skip it – if you feel it will be too much, opt out of doing anything for the holidays. However, plan comforting alternative plans and have someone check in on you.

Although the holidays may be difficult, there are ways to cope through your trauma and grief. Have a support system in place. You cannot control the past, but you can take control by having someone to talk to when distressed. Use healthy coping skills. It's common to develop unhealthy skills to numb your pain and emotions. Developing healthy strategies can be empowering. You have a choice. You have the right to decide to not attend a holiday event without explaining why to anyone. You can set boundaries, say no, and change your mind. Make the choice that is right for you. Be kind to yourself. Yes, you are likely to be upset, emotional and triggered. If you fall apart, it's ok. If your feelings are too overwhelming reach out for help, call a friend, call a crisis phone line or go to your nearest emergency room if feeling unsafe. Take control of your reactions to your triggers and keep yourself safe. If something goes wrong give yourself some grace!

Self-care is critical during the holidays especially when you are experiencing trauma, grief or overly stressed. One way to move through the holidays is with the use of mindfulness. Meditation is a form of mindfulness that helps you stay grounded, clears your mind, and regulates your emotions. Other self-care skills that are helpful are having good sleep habits, deep breathing, healthy eating, exercise, staying hydrated, journaling, positive self-talk, and therapy.

During the holiday season, give yourself grace and be patient with yourself. Remember setting boundaries and self-care is important and necessary. Use positive self-care skills to stay empowered. Know your triggers and if you become overly emotional in a situation, try to determine what the trigger is, try to remove yourself or use a coping skill in the moment like taking space, deep breathing, and grounding techniques.

As always, stay safe, stay well and take care of you.

- Danielle

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