One Less at the Table: Experiencing the Holidays After a Loss

Photo by burningparrot 

The holiday season is an excellent time to come together with friends and family and celebrate many things, from what we’re most thankful for, to the coming of the New Year. For those who have just experienced loss—the death of a loved one—the holiday season can be difficult. What was once a season of joy can become a painful reminder of that loss and turns the holiday season into a very different experience than the jolly time experienced by others.

If you’ve experienced a loss, this article aims to shed some light on the grief you’re experiencing and to help you navigate its many stages. So, what exactly is grief?


Grief and Its Stages

Grief is the pain and emotional turmoil that follows loss. When accompanying the loss of a loved one, it may be followed by feelings of guilt or of confusion, particularly when the relationship with your loved one was complicated or difficult.

Many people are aware of the “five stages of grief” postulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and apply them to the process experienced by those of us who are going through grief:

1.      Denial

2.      Anger

3.      Bargaining

4.      Depression

5.      Acceptance

What most people aren’t aware of, however, is that grief is not as simple as popular belief would tell you.

When experiencing grief, some people may go through all five stages in the exact order in which they’re listed, while others may go “out of order,” and others still may only experience one of these stages or even a stage that isn’t listed as part of the five. The five stages of grief are an excellent guide to navigating through grief, but they are not universally applicable to everyone.

The fourth stage of grief, depression, is often confused or conflated with grief. When people feel depressed, especially after a loss, they sometimes don’t realize that what they’re actually experiencing is only a stage in the grieving process and thus are unable to navigate the process as effectively. Nonclinical depression is a natural part of the grieving process experienced by many, and usually comes to a resolution over time.

If you find that your feelings of depression become persistent and pervasive, then it’s possible that you may be experiencing clinical depression (major depressive disorder). In the event that this occurs, it may be necessary to seek out a qualified mental health professional that can assess you for MDD.

Overcoming Grief

How can we tell when we’re overcoming grief? While there are many ways to tell if you are improving, here are just a few signs:

·         You can reflect on both pleasant and unpleasant memories of your loved one.

·         Sensitivity to comments decreases and reminders of your loss are less painful.

·         Feelings of guilt decrease and feelings of acceptance increase.

·         It’s easier to experience feelings of gratitude.



The point is this: grief is complicated and different for everyone. There is no timeline for getting better and it’s perfectly natural if you experience grief during the holidays. Remember that in time, these feelings will improve.

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Dad’s Holiday Blues

The holiday season is usually thought of as a time of joy and thanksgiving; of gathering with family and friends to revel and give gifts to one another while enjoying delicious food and drink. For others, the holiday season is a time of sadness, loneliness, and pain.

The “holiday blues” are feelings of sadness and anxiety that usually last throughout the holiday season during November and December, and while not as serious as conditions such as clinical depression, the holiday blues can exacerbate the depression and anxiety that you are already experiencing. This time of the year can be difficult for men—especially African American men—who often feel that sharing their feelings with loved ones would not be the manly thing to do.

So, what can men do to improve their mental health during the holidays when there are already so many challenges to face? What can loved ones do when the men in their lives are having a difficult time regulating their emotions?

Understand the Signs

Understanding how men are affected by depression is the first step in learning to cope with it. Different men experience different symptoms, but there are usually a handful of symptoms common among men suffering from depression. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Anger or irritability; aggression
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety, restlessness
  • Self-medication with alcohol or drugs
  • Isolation from family and/or friends
  • Loss of interest in work, family, hobbies, and other activities once considered pleasurable

Knowing what symptoms to look for is only half the battle. The next thing that must be done is taking the steps needed to cope with these feelings in a healthy, safe, and effective manner. So, what is there to do to alleviate these symptoms during the holidays?

How to Cope

There are many ways for men to keep the holiday blues at bay and you may be surprised at how simple these methods are:

  1. Speak with a therapist, even if you don’t think your symptoms are extreme. Avoiding the conversations that will allow you to process your feelings and regulate your emotions will only make things worse.
  2. Avoid isolating yourself. Even if you don’t have family to celebrate the holidays with, it’s important to find ways to enjoy your social connections—don’t be afraid to reach out.
  3. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a depressant and will only make things worse, so limit your consumption to one or two drinks and at social functions only.
  4. Get some exercise. You don’t have to go hardcore every day, but even just one hour a week can help

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to get you on the right track.


The holiday season isn’t always easy to get through, and for men, it can sometimes feel unbearable experiencing a mental health crisis—especially when they’re taught to “grin and bear it.” Instead, we should strive to be open and honest about the way we feel.

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