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CU Nursing faculty Drs. Coats and Peterson explain the complexities of grieving

Dealing with Grief During the Holidays

CU Nursing faculty explain the complexities of grieving, and how to help

Written by Bob Mook on December 20, 2022

Between gatherings with friends and family – and the “expectation” of joyfulness – the holiday season can be fraught with stress, even in the happiest of times. For those grieving the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship or a career setback, the season can be especially challenging.

One thing is for certain: There is no right way or wrong way to grieve, according to University of Colorado College of Nursing Assistant Professor, Heather Coats, PhD, APRN-BC, and Associate Professor of Clinical Teaching, Kerry Peterson, PhD, DNP, PMHNP-BC.

Dr. Coats has more than 20 years of clinical experience in palliative, oncology, and hospice care. Her research focuses on improving quality of communication and the psychological-social-spiritual wellbeing of people living with serious illnesses, as well as their families.

Dr. Peterson is the specialty director of CU Nursing’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program. She has worked clinically with patients who are struggling with many types of grief. Her clinical experience includes psychiatric inpatient, outpatient, residential/shelter, and campus settings – with an emphasis in psychotherapy and interventions for individuals who have experienced trauma and abuse.

Here are their thoughts about dealing with grief during this time of year:

Every season is grief season

During the holidays, many of us host or participate in gatherings and traditions with the expectation that everybody should be happy. For those and other reasons, one might think that grief would become more exacerbated, but it’s a year-long phenomenon. Still, the absence of certain loved ones might be especially noticeable in the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

“Grieving is a process,” Coats says. “Part of the process is recognizing what the triggers are. Maybe your loved one died in summer – so, the onset of summer is the trigger. Maybe your loved one died at Christmas, so that’s a trigger. But grief is not something that should be considered or thought about only during the holidays.”

Peterson points out that people have their own unique grief experiences. Even though a family might be grieving the same loved one, one person might feel extreme sadness while another might still experience a sense of joy and happiness during this special time.

“There needs to be a recognition that the holidays create a lot of hustle and bustle … Don’t let the hustle and bustle not allow you to grieve.”

– CU Nursing Assistant Professor, Heather Coats, PhD, APRN-BC

Acknowledge your feelings

In the holiday season or any other time of the year, Coats and Peterson say that dealing with grief requires a large measure of self-forgiveness, self-care, as well as understanding and setting boundaries. Allowing yourself to “feel your feelings” is an important part of grieving.

“There needs to be a recognition that the holidays create a lot of hustle and bustle,” Coats says. “But that doesn’t mean you take away the grief and put the hustle and bustle in its place so that you live in denial that the grief is there. Don’t let the hustle and bustle not allow you to grieve.”

Peterson encourages people who are grieving to reach out and get support, so that they can experience the holidays in different ways – perhaps by establishing some new traditions.

“Sometimes it might be too painful, but people who are grieving can still find comfort in keeping traditions or creating new ones to honor the memory of their loved one – such as lighting a candle or playing a favorite Christmas song,” she says. “Lean into whatever it is that harkens to things that once brought you joy with the beloved, instead of pushing it away and not thinking about it.”

In dealing with longer-term grief, Peterson recommends grief support groups because they let the bereaved connect with others who are experiencing a loss. She adds that psychotherapy and prescription medications could help those who experience prolonged grief that leads to isolation and severe depression. The latest edition of DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals) added “prolonged grief disorder” as a diagnosis earlier this year, making it easier for clinicians to identify and diagnose people who need treatment and support.

Support those who are grieving

Not everyone is at the same point in their grieving journey. If you are further along in processing grief than your friends and family, Peterson says you can best support others by asking what you could do to help and not making assumptions.

“You probably shouldn’t assume a friend isn’t ready to go to a party because she just lost her husband,” she says. “It might be helpful for her to continue with activities and social connections.”

Coats maintains that because grief is different for everyone, it is important to be “cued in” to friends and families during the holidays and beyond.

“It’s important to allow someone the space to grieve and to know that they are sad and missing someone,” she says. “It is also important to pick up on the cues that allows people to continue processing. The holidays can be a really healing space – so long as someone feels acceptance for that grief.”

Editorial note: Drs. Coats and Peterson discussed the new diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder in the Five to Thrive Podcast in September, 2022

Topics: Faculty