The holiday season is a time for joy but also carries hints of anguish for many.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday to decorate for. The colors, the scent, and the lack of national recognition compared to Halloween and Christmas decorations gives me life every year. 

And while that feeling of joy is always present, that same season reminds me of those who are not present.

On Oct. 27th, 2018, I was preparing for a slew of college Halloween parties, and as a freshman, that was a big deal. It was so much of a big deal, I saved my little campus employment checks to buy multiple costumes for each party. 

But amidst the preparation and feelings of excitement, I then received a call. It was from a high school friend, Jackson. He was letting me know that a very close friend of mine—his older brother Aaron—had passed away due to a drug overdose. At that moment, you would think that the little college ragers I was planning to attend would hit the back burner, but they didn’t.

Instead, I made arrangements to get my hair done. And then after that, I volunteered to host a booth at our campus’ Hallofest. I then scheduled multiple workouts with my basketball coach. I did anything to avert my attention away because to address what happened was to reveal that I was not okay.

As an athlete, I was taught to push through injuries, mind over matter. Throughout my life, even outside of athletics, I kept that sentiment. My best friend passed away my tenth-grade year the same week my great-grandmother died in our home holding my hand, and I had to play a playoff basketball game that week. 

So, just like a minor sprained ankle, I pushed that grief to the side. I let it fuel my game. In my junior year, my family lost one of our foster children. My basketball season hadn’t started so I had to look towards my school work and projects as something to lean my ignored grief on. 

Then, October 27th happened. I tried to find an outlet to push this grief under the mask of fueling. But nothing felt the same. Basketball didn’t have the same kick to it. Thanksgiving decorating didn’t give me life like it used to. Christmas didn’t feel magical and New Year’s Day sucked.

Those holidays are usually the ones spent with the people who mean the most, but what happens when they’re gone?

In my case, I tried to ignore the elephant-sized ghosts in the room. I tried to push my mind over matter, but my mind was injured and it had been for years. That’s where I went wrong.

It is impossible to move on when you lose someone you love. As much as you push back wallowing within that grief, it becomes magnified at some point and time – and for many, it’s during the holidays.

And it’s easy to feel that you’re not supposed to feel sad or overwhelmed during a time dubbed magical, but it is okay to not be okay. 

For me, I had to sit and process what had happened and everything I had lost with a therapist. I took time to talk with my friends who knew him and his family. And while it still hurts today, it’s been easier to carry on. 

But grieving is different for everyone. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings and not ignore them.

While dealing with loss and handling grief is difficult—coping mechanisms vary from person to person—here are some ways to cope with grief during the holidays:

Set Boundaries with Holiday Events:

 It’s easy to feel obligated to attend or participate in a family gathering or event, but your wants and needs are more important. 

Tune Into Your Grief Emotions: 

Grief doesn’t take a back seat just because it is the holiday season, so it is important to acknowledge your feelings. Be kind to yourself and remember that all feelings can coexist. 

Plan Ahead to Fill Empty Holiday Roles:

Sometimes loss includes empty holiday roles, like grandma’s home cooked yams for Thanksgiving or dad dressing as the holiday armadillo. Planning ahead can avoid unnecessary moments of sadness.

Honor Old Traditions & Memories:

Honoring traditions is a helpful way to keep loved ones’ lost memory present.

Identify Grief Coping Skills:

Prior to the holiday season, consider creating a list of go-to coping skills to use whether you are at home or at a social function. 

Volunteer: It may help to help others and bring joy to someone else who needs it.

Ask For Help When Struggling with Grief: Therapy, support groups, friends and family are all options that can help work through grief. Whether you have lost someone close to you or not, the holidays can bring up many complicated feelings. It’s completely normal and okay.

Author Vicki Harrison described grief as an ocean.

“Grief is like the ocean,” Harrison said. “It comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

There isn’t a right or wrong way to deal with the holiday season following the loss of a loved one. If you experience happiness, let it enter into your space. If you feel sadness, acknowledge that. If you feel a whirlwind of emotions, acknowledge it and be present with the people around you. Be kind to yourself and try to take it one holiday party and one feeling at a time.