The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Navigating Grief During the Holiday Season

Close up of healthcare worker's hand with a blue glove giving support and love to a patient experiencing grief during the holiday season.

This article is based on the 30-hour CE course Loss, Grief, and Bereavement, 4th Edition by Barbara Rubel, BS, MA, BCETS, DAAETS.

Everyone grieves differently. Whether due to the death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis, or the loss of a relationship, grief is a natural part of the human experience, and it’s as complex and varied as those it affects.

Understanding the grieving process is a critical aspect of patient care and something with which all clinicians should be familiar.

A theoretical framework

Grief is a total-person emotion, blending physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and spiritual reactions into a multifaceted experience of loss.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) tracks a general, if not universal, emotional pattern for grief, each stage of which may be uniquely affected by factors related to the loss.

However, this approach assumes a linear progression through each discrete stage, while in reality, grief — like every other human emotion — rarely sticks to a schedule.

Related: Loss, Grief, and Bereavement Specialty CE Courses for Nursing Professionals

Not so merry and bright

Theories of grief and models of grief processing patterns are useful for clinicians, but remember: They are descriptive, not prescriptive. Several steps, stages, or processes may occur simultaneously, and patients may see recurrences at significant times throughout the year — especially during the holiday season.

Those who’ve suffered loss may feel the grief more keenly during the holidays, as their loved ones are no longer there to celebrate with them. Long distances and lockdown measures may keep families separate for the holidays, even when there hasn’t been a death. The loss of that time together, while it may seem small in comparison to the loss caused by death, can trigger similar feelings of grief.

Related: Loss, Grief, and Bereavement, 4th Edition

Supportive and compassionate care

As someone entrusted with the care of a bereaved patient, what’s the best way to navigate feelings of grief during the holiday season?

As in any relationship, communication is key. For clinicians and patients, therapeutic communication is vital. This includes any communication practice that promotes the patient’s comfort, safety, trust, or health and well-being.

Bereaved individuals may be struggling to make meaning of their loss, especially when they feel belittled, invalidated, or unsupported in their grief. For some grieving patients, simply having someone present is a comfort. For others, hearing a clinician ask meaningful questions about their loved one may help process their grief.

Additionally, a patient’s personal, religious, and cultural beliefs about life and death are important to keep in mind, as these will likely inform their entire grieving process. Leave judgment at the door, listen attentively, and above all, support them with compassion.

Related: Care, Compassion, and End-of-Life Issues

This article is extracted from Elite’s 2021 Holiday Guide for Healthcare Professionals. With practical wellness tips, special offers, and meaningful deep-dives into issues affecting patients and care-givers, the guide is your go-to professional resource for the holiday season. You can view the content of the guide and sign up for a free download here.

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