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Finding Holiday Joy Amid the Grief

If you've lost a loved one or suffered a setback, the holidays can feel hollow. Learn how to experience joy despite it all.
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WebMD Feature

It's a disappointing truth: Holiday cheer can be difficult to come by if you're facing emotional pain caused by a loss. But experts urge us to muster our inner strength -- to find bits of holiday joy amid the grief.

Loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a divorce, illness -- all these bring grief to our lives, says Lisa Lewis, PhD, director of psychology at The Menninger Clinic in Houston. "There's loss when a child leaves home for college, or when a child gets married. These are normal transitions, but they do create a sense of loss."

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"Even at the best of times, the holidays are stressful -- but when there's an additional emotional burden, they're especially difficult," says Paula K. Rauch, MD, director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"When there's a loss or a change in our lives, our traditions must change -- and that's hard because we will miss our favorite things," notes Rauch, author of Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent Is Sick. "People do well to anticipate how changes will affect those traditions. It's important to be open to new traditions. Take the best of the old, borrow from new people in your life, and create new traditions."

Open Your Heart

Indeed, the traditions are what tug at our hearts. "Holidays symbolize a time when people come together," explains Susan Apollon, a counselor licensed as a psychologist in Pennsylvania. "The holidays represent a myriad of memories accumulated during your lifetime," she tells WebMD. "If you've had wonderful times, you hope for the same good times, having all your family together. Even if you haven't had that, you hope for it."

Though the holidays can be difficult, they can also be a time of healing, says Apollon, who authored the book, Touched by the Extraordinary. "Allow little miracles by opening your heart and experiencing connections with loved ones. You're entitled to find some joy."

Accept the Sadness

"People think they should be happy all the time, but that is an unrealistic expectation for life," Lewis tells WebMD. "Life is much more complex than that. If we can welcome the full range of emotional experience as part of a normal, healthy life, it takes some of the misery out of normal unhappiness and grief.

"If we allow ourselves to have those emotions, they will actually pass more quickly than if we push them away," she says.

The feeling of separation is indeed poignant at the holidays, says Apollon. "It's important to feel safe in facing your sadness, letting yourself cry when you need to. You have to experience the sadness to get past it," she tells WebMD.

Then call a friend and meet for coffee -- or do something equally comforting, she adds.

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