While the holidays have long been considered a time of reunion and joy, they aren’t always that way for everyone. But that has never been more the case since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to so many lost loved ones and empty seats around the dinner table. This national outpouring of grief is something the Canadian Grief Alliance has even dubbed “COVID-19’s hidden tragedy.”
With anxiety and depression high, it isn’t just the loss of family or friends that might be tough, but many have lost work over the last two years, or have felt their lives interrupted by an unavoidable force, one that’s either created a gap in some way, or left our lives on pause. And when facing a holiday that is all about celebration of love and positivity, it can be hard to feel, well, either of those things without a dose of bittersweetness.
But the holidays don’t have to be all about happiness — they can just be. And that means keeping in mind what we always have each year: that family can be complicated.
“People are coming together with a lot of different personalities, and expectations are often high in terms of wanting to have quality time and connect,” says Toula Kourgiantakis, social worker, family therapist, and assistant professor of social work at the University of Toronto. “People are dealing with things that have been in place for a long time, including long-standing family issues, perhaps there are individuals that are not as close as others. Expectations are unrealistic in the best of times.”
And now we’re also dealing with a global pandemic, she adds, which tends to polarize people.
“There could be differing opinions in terms of how to respond to the pandemic, vaccinations, boosters, and that can get tense,” Kourgiantakis. “It’s a setting where people feel less in control.”
And there’s the grief.
Everyone experiences grief differently, something worth noting if some of your family members are expressing their emotions in a way different from you. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, a “normal” grief response can include waves of sadness, sleeplessness, fatigue, poor concentration, and loss of appetite, and about 30 per cent of people may experience this level of intensity following the death of a spouse or child.
So how can we cope? Just like we express grief differently, we cope differently. And that begins with altering your expectations for what a “perfect” holiday is, and instead of being intent on feeling and exuding happiness, just focusing on facing your pain.
For instance, actor Andrew Garfield had the internet abuzz this month when he opened up about the loss of his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2019, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“I love talking about it, by the way, so if I cry, it’s…only a beautiful thing,” he said. “This is all the unexpressed love. The grief that will remain with us until we pass because we never get enough time with each other, right? No matter if someone lives until 60, 15, or 99.”
By viewing this emotion — which can feel negative because of its heaviness — as a beautiful, necessary thing, we can honour it and give ourselves the space to feel it.
“Grief is really quite personal,” says Kourgiantakis. “We need to have self-compassion and recognize that it is normal and it can mean a myriad of emotions, and that’s not a linear process. You might feel okay one day and sad the next, so it’s also important to be kind to the people around you and recognize that ‘getting over it’ is not good advice because it’s a process.”
Her key advice is to enjoy the people who are there and around you, particularly during a pandemic, when another lockdown feels not too far away and some have been missing intimate contact more than others.
“There is space for both,” she adds. “You can give yourself permission to grieve and also not feel guilty if you’re allowing yourself to look for joy where you can find it.”
In moderating your expectations, you can also have an idea of what the day or weekend’s events will be so you can mentally prepare to some degree, while placing personal comfort at the top of your priorities. If that means taking moments for yourself or grabbing take-out instead of cooking a feast, so be it. The essential thing is taking care of you, and those around you, and that means asking for help if you need it and remembering there can be respite — even if it’s momentary.
“I suggest not dwelling on the shoulds and the should-nots,” says Kourgiantakis. “It doesn’t infuse hope and, right now, hope is really important. Being hopeful is not delusional or unrealistic. Hope is like oxygen, you need it. While it can be hard, we need to look forward.”