8 Tips for Remaining Present at the Holidays (While Grieving)

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

For further articles on these topics:

Ok, I'll confess: The reason why I'm writing about remaining present during the holiday season is personal. For the last few years, I've found myself caught in the following cycle:

grief holiday cycle

Those of you reading this post feel all sorts of ways about the holidays. Some of you are ambivalent, while others feel a sense of dread. For you, remaining present may not feel like a priority this year. But for me, I really want to feel connected with the holidays—and the fact that I don't is frustrating.

I want to feel differently about the holidays. The problem is, I only have control over so many things. I can't change the fact that I will always grieve for my mother this time of year. I can't help the involuntary memories that continually transport me back in time, nor do I think I'd ever want to. And I certainly can't desert my parental holiday responsibilities in the present-day.

The way I see it, all I can do is to try to strike a balance that provides space for my holiday grief; time to cope with my general baseline stress and anxiety; and times when I can remain fully present with the holiday moments that matter. Or, in other words, times when I try to have "present moment awareness."

What is Present Moment Awareness?

A common-sense definition for present moment awareness is merely paying attention to what is happening in the present. Though if you want to get complicated, researchers have defined it as the:

“...continuous monitoring of experience with a focus on current experience rather than preoccupation with past or future events”

(Cardaciotto, Herbert, Forman, Moitra, & Farrow, 2008, p. 205).

Those of you who are grieving may have spotted a problem already. No preoccupation with the past? How is one supposed to remain connected with their memories, process their grief, etc. if they don't spend time focusing on the past!?

The answer here is that grieving people do need to spend time focusing on the past. You will never hear us say that people need to put the past behind them. In fact, taking time to connect with loved ones and to process difficult emotions actually helps a person to stay present when the time comes.

The point of this article is to help you remain present if and when you experience holiday moments, traditions, or events that are important to you. Super simple, right?

Well, not exactly.

8 Tips for Remaining Present at the Holidays

There are many benefits to having present moment awareness. If you don't want to take my word for it, a quick Google search will connect you with tons of articles about its positive effects. For example, present moment awareness is linked with increased ability to manage stress and constructive coping. Great. If it were super easy, we'd all be doing it... But it's not—especially not for people who are grieving—and that's where our tips come in.

1. Notice the Ways Your Loved One Is Still Present: 

Something I find incredibly comforting in grief is the idea that we don't leave our loved ones behind, we bring them with us into the present

If you're finding it difficult to connect with the present because you're overwhelmed by memories of the past, challenge yourself to identify 5-10 ways that your loved one is still present. You may notice them in objects, traditions, your child's laugh, your shared values, the way you continue to talk to them, and so on. 

For additional holiday inspiration, we've written extensively about incorporating the memory of your loved one into your present-day holidays.

2. Focus On One Thing at a Time:

Many people don't realize that multitasking is a myth. What you're really doing is switching your focus back and forth between tasks, stopping, and starting over again each time. Not only are time and efficiency lost in this transition, but are you ever able to be fully present with either task? If you're like me, the whole time you're doing one task, you're thinking about and planning for the next.

Now, layer grief-brain on top of this process, and you've got a big ole mess! Think about it: On any random Tuesday, grief wreaks havoc on things like memory and concentration. Add the stress of the holiday season, and you're lucky if you correctly matched your shoes this morning.

3. Talk to Yourself About What You Are Doing: 

Even better, talk to your loved one about what you are doing! One of our readers, Joni, recently shared in her Grief Recipe Story published here on WYG:

"On good days, I think of myself as experiencing the physical world for him now..."  

She was talking about baking cookies, but I think this idea extends here. Think of yourself as describing the physical world to your loved one. For example, tell them how the holiday decorations look as you put them up or what your kitchen smells like as your cookies finish baking. By illustrating what you're doing, you take the time to notice the intricacies of the moment.

Bonus: This is also on our list of 64 Tips for Coping with Forgetfulness in Grief.

4. Allow Yourself to Lose Track of Time and Get Lost in the Moment: 

Okay, okay, so this can be difficult for grieving people for a number of reasons. 

First, many people have shared with us that the second they notice themselves becoming lost in a moment, they feel guilty for not thinking about their loved one. Remember, it's okay to take a break from your grief. It's also okay to feel things like joy and happiness. As we said in our recent post, Seven Ways to Go Easy on Yourself While Grieving During the Holidays, experiencing positive emotions does not mean you are not also grieving.  

Second, stress and general holiday busyness take away from one's ability to get swept away in a moment. We know time is a limited commodity in December, but to the extent that you can prioritize the experiences you actually care about, do! For example, if trimming the tree is an important event for your family, plan to do it on a day when there aren’t a million other activities pulling at you. Schedule more time than you need so you can pace yourself and process different memories and emotions as they come up.

5. Minimize Phone and Social Media Distractions

You know this tip had to make the list, sorry!

6. Reduce Avoidance:

Avoidance is a funny coping skill because, a large percentage of the time, it backfires. Psychologists like to illustrate this with the white bear trick (or the pink elephant trick). The white bear trick is when I say to you, "Hey, don't think of a white bear, okay?". What is the next thing you do? You think of a white bear. The point being, sometimes, the more we tell ourselves NOT to think about something, the more it haunts us.

avoidance in grief

People who engage in chronic avoidance get stuck in a cat-and-mouse game where they waste a lot of time, energy, and attention running from unpleasant experiences and emotions that will not stop giving chase.  And, you guessed it, this type of avoidance distracts a person from the present moment in a big way. 

7. Take the Time to Cope With Distressing Grief Thoughts and Emotions:

When you're grieving, the present moment can be a scary place because grief triggers and distressing thoughts and emotions live there. But, the key to coping with these experiences is actually to allow yourself to experience them and find constructive ways to cope with them.

You have to find the coping that works for you, but we often recommend things like journaling, creative expression, talking to a friend, and going to counseling. Theoretically, the more one utilizes outlets for coping with their grief, the less distracting it will be over time. 

8. Savor Moments of Peace, Happiness, and Comfort:

Psychologists studying mindfulness and present moment awareness talk about 'savoring' which involves, "...responding to positive experiences with thoughts and behaviors intended to increase and potentially prolong enjoyment..." This goes hand in hand with a coping skill we've discussed before: Gratitude.  

Examples of savoring the moment include thinking about the pleasurable aspects of an experience, expressing gratitude for the moment, allowing oneself to smile or express positive emotions, focusing on the sensations of the moment (i.e., sight, touch, taste), and telling others about the positive experience.

Look, I know this sounds like a lot to people who are grieving because positive moments can feel few and far between. But this is actually an ideal coping skill in these instances because, when you do have a good moment, savoring it allows you to stretch its positive benefit beyond what it would be if you were only paying half-attention.  

If you have suggestions for remaining present during the holidays, share them below!

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

9 Comments on "8 Tips for Remaining Present at the Holidays (While Grieving)"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Vicki  December 26, 2019 at 1:06 pm Reply

    I’m going to need this more next year than I will now.
    They FINALLY set a date for the trial against the accused to take place – for a murder that happened in 2001. Anyone who doesn’t believe loved ones of murder victims are revictimized by the criminal “justice” system ia probably lucky because it means the person hasn’t witnessed it firsthand. It’s been taking so long because the counsel for the defendants have been doing everything under the sun to force capital punishment off the table. Lying in ways you’ve never seen people lie, including being worse than how Trump lies; his at least are obvious. This business where people who didn’t lose a co-worker, friend or family member get to have so many opinions about whether those monsters who did it should receive capital sentencing is ridiculous IMO.
    The actual crimes they’d committed didn’t make America lose something the way it made Eric Bennett & 2,976 others do; they all lost their lives. The United States didn’t lose its life and nothing anyone says can change that. That’s why whenever any politician talks, they can always refocus on “what we didn’t lose.” Well…Eric lost that too and recognizing what we still have doesn’t change it.
    I don’t believe the monsters who did it will die for it, but I’m for them getting capital sentencing. No matter what happens, it won’t be as bad as what they did to him. But I don’t think they will because too many people feel sorry for them. We hear almost every day how much sorrow people have for the defendants.
    I’m not looking forward to this trial at all.

  2. Teresa Kokesch  December 25, 2019 at 1:14 am Reply

    I feel lost and sad so much. Everyday. I lost my 1st husband in 1978 after only 6mo of marriage, then my parents died more than 30 yrs ago, 2 nephews, and my MIL from my 2nd marriage. Then my 2nd husband left me with 2 girls so he could take care of himself. The girls and I were fine and he did keep in touch with them. But he talked Quinn into moving to Arizona, then So Dakota, to live with him and take care of him with his medical issues. The cement was put on my shoulders when she was killed by a semi truck in 2012. I had Shelby and my family. 8 sisters, 1 brother, and lots of nieces and nephews to support my grief and daily life. But, still, I was grieving 100% of the time. Then my oldest sister, Susan, gets a lung cancer diagnosis. Treatment, cleared, then diagnosis is it’s back. Mar 2016. Shelby and I are hit by a vehicle on a rainy, dark night. Shelby is now gone too. I survive but can my heart?
    Susan passes away in June 2016. How much can I take?!? I somehow go on. I want to go to work to keep busy but I only work 3 days a week. I am needed there. Life is not happy. I spend a lot of time alone. Jan 2018 I am dealt another blow. My house is on fire. Mostly the first floor but lost a lot of treasures from my life and of my daughters. Out of my house for 10 mo. Had to put Scratch, Shelby’s 16 yr old dog, to sleep in June 2019. Sept, my niece, who has heart issues, now has cancer. Had to have a C-section to deliver her daughter early. She was only 2# 12oz. Hope to God her treatments go well and she beats cancer. Now it’s December. Christmas Eve. Still sad and alone. I will see 1 family tomorrow but I am sad because we all used to get together. Now some are out of state and most have kids with kids. I will never be a grandmother.
    I know this is really long but it helps to write it and read it back. God has a plan for everyone of us but I do not understand why my plan is so full of loss. No one, not even God, can make my life truly happy ever again. Losing a child, then another, and you don’t have anymore, is the worst. I miss my daughters sooo much. And everyone else, too.
    Blessings for everyone going through losses. And we can only keep praying to God to get through each day.

  3. Carol Mullen  December 23, 2019 at 8:55 pm Reply

    John I miss you so much. I find myself thinking you might come through the door with a big ,”What sup?

    And then, nothing but the dog breathing and the clock ticking.

    Not a very Merry Christmas for this moment. Tomorrow is another day.

  4. Eileen  December 23, 2019 at 6:53 am Reply

    I am struggling with Christmas , well not just with Christmas it is of course worse at this time. I lost my wonderful husband in April 2018 and then my lovely daughter four weeks later . Then in October I lostmy sister. One day at a time ! As the song goes. Il put on a face for the sake of the grandchildren but it will be soooooooooo hard.

    • Lynlee  November 26, 2020 at 6:02 pm Reply

      Lost my dear hubby 47 days ago. Love of my life, best friend, father of my son. Today sucked. Christmas will be awful as well. Went through the motions today but heart just wasn’t in it. Hearts not in anything anymore. I am in a fog. Found my son’s socks in the fridge this morning. A roll of toilet paper was sitting on the hood of the car yesterday. Left my I.D. in the supermarket last week. You get the idea. What’s wrong with me?? I’ve tried to get back into my old hobbies and tried a new hobby even. Lack the concentration I used to have. I can’t focus on even the simplest of tasks. As my poor dad was blessing the Thanksgiving meal I burst into tears. Have been crying ever since. I just want him back dammit. I didn’t even get to say goodbye he went so unexpectedly. I feel drained. Sluggish. Out of sorts. The worst part of all is I’m a lier. Told my husband on way to hospital that everything would be okay. Told him when we got home I would fix his favorite meal and I would watch that new movie with him that he had been trying to get me to watch for a week. I LIED. The last words I ever spoke to my dear man were a BIG FAT LIE BECAUSE HE NEVER CAME HOME.
      I miss you today
      I miss you tomorrow
      Come take me away
      Allow me to borrow

      Just one more moment
      A fragment of time
      A day that was meant
      For you to be mine

      My last words to you
      Weren’t even goodbye
      I believed they were true
      But were really a lie

      For I could not conceive
      That you’d not be returned
      Could never believe
      The truth that I learned

      That your not coming home
      Won’t be by my side
      Now heaven you roam
      And oh how I cry

      I told you together
      We’d always be
      That nothing could sever
      What ties you to me

      But I LIED
      In prayer I tried
      Through tears I denied
      Forgive me my sweet love
      I LIED on the day that you died.

      • IsabelleS  November 27, 2020 at 11:25 am

        Lynlee, I’m so sorry for your loss and for the pain you are being made to endure. Nothing is wrong with you, you’re just grieving… And that’s completely normal and okay! I understand how difficult the holidays can be. I wish I could say something to make them easier/better, but for now, just be gentle with yourself as you get through them. I understand that you feel guilty, but know that you were telling your husband what he needed to hear to feel comfortable. You are not “a liar.” I recommend you check out this article: https://whatsyourgrief.com/guilt-and-grief-2/ Please go easy on yourself.

  5. Ellen  December 21, 2019 at 7:18 pm Reply

    My dad was never around for Christmas so I’m not missing him right now. However, in spring and summer, which is when he would spend time here, I will be missing him just as other people miss their loved ones at Christmas. So, in some bizarre way, reading all this Christmas comfort/advice (which doesn’t apply to me) is just making me feel worse and more lonely…

  6. Dan  December 20, 2019 at 11:07 am Reply

    I love the fact that you never advise forgetting the past.

  7. Anne Krause  December 19, 2019 at 10:07 pm Reply

    Thank you , thank you, thank you. I would be more specific about what sparks my thankfulness in your article, except that it’s exceptionally hard to do that at the moment 🙂 My husband died unexpectedly in August 2017 and my mother just died unexpectedly in November 2019. I thought I was “coping” with my husband’s death. But my mother’s death has brought back soooooooooooooo many ways I still miss my husband. Anyway, thank you, as always, for all the ways you help us work through whatever it is we may be going through. My best wishes for your holiday season with sincere thought and care.

Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.