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  • Dr. Mel Tavares

Five Keys to Surviving Family Holidays

First published Dec. 5, 2022 at susanuneal.com (https://bit.ly/3UFyC9K)

If you are one of the millions who have lost a loved one over the past year, your goal for the next few weeks includes surviving family holidays with your mental health intact. Here are some key thoughts that will help you survive and even begin to thrive.

Grief is magnified during the holiday season as memories abound. Holidays stretch from early November until after the New Year. Six or more weeks of family gatherings can be taxing for anyone, but holiday gatherings can be overwhelming for those who are grieving.

Family time often includes time where stories are shared of days gone by and can serve to inflame the grief you are feeling. There are steps you can take to help you survive the family holidays, perhaps even enjoy portions of them.

Maintain a Healthy Diet Holiday meals are filled with all sorts of sweet treats and gluten-laden dishes. Maintaining a low-sugar and low-carb diet during the holidays will keep you feeling much better emotionally and physically. Be intentional about choosing healthy foods leading up to and throughout the holidays.

People grieve in different ways. Some engage in binge eating. If you are a binge eater, keeping healthy snacks on hand will help you maintain a healthy diet, boosting your energy and stabilizing your mental health. Snack options include fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and gluten-free crackers or chips to munch with salsa.

Plan ahead by letting hosts know that you eat a gluten-free diet and are happy to bring a couple of sides to share with family and a sugar-free dessert option. By offering to bring low-carb, gluten-free options, you will feel good about contributing while continuing to maintain a healthy diet during the gathering.

Here is the link to an excellent article for more holiday healthy eating tips and recipes. https://susanuneal.com/healthy-holiday-eating-tips-recipes The broccoli salad and apple crisp are both healthy eating options to take to any gathering. If you will be attending a brunch, the gluten-free banana bread recipe is wonderful and can be made ahead.


Strive to Live a Healthy Lifestyle

Another key to surviving family holidays while grieving is intentionally choosing a healthy lifestyle. This lifestyle includes getting adequate sleep, taking time to exercise, and prioritizing time for prayer or quiet reflection.

Grieving often disrupts sleep, particularly for those who have lost a spouse and are used to sharing the bed. Figuring out how to get restorative sleep is key to surviving family holidays. Without the recommended 7+ hours, sleep deprivation sets in and causes a person to be less capable of maintaining healthy emotional and mental health.

More details on recommended sleep can be found at this Mayo Clinic article: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health

Exercise is highly beneficial in helping you survive the family holidays by choosing a healthy lifestyle. Anyone who is grieving is also dealing with immense amounts of stress. The two go hand in hand, and the more complex the grief and unexpected the loss, the greater the stress. Exercising releases endorphins which boost your mood while alleviating anxiety and depression. You will cope with family gatherings in a much healthier way if you commit to taking as little as a 20-minute walk a day throughout the holiday season.

You could combine your walk with the next point of prioritizing time for prayer or quiet reflection. Many people listen to music or a podcast while walking, but your spirit also needs quiet time. If you combine activities and turn your time into a prayer walk, you will come back refreshed and may be surprised at how energized you are.

Prayer or quiet reflection gives you time to process the grief you are feeling and think ahead about the conversations you will encounter during the family holidays. Recounting all the good things past and present will infuse hope of things to come. It has been said that we cannot live without hope, and I can think of no time a person feels more hopeless than when facing days without a loved one. A fellow writer wrote an excellent article on hope, which you can find here: https://susanuneal.com/how-to-keep-hope-alive

By focusing on the truths of all God has done for you in the past, hope arises within and gives you the strength you need for the day. It is vital to carve out time on the days you will be going to a family holiday gathering so that you can respond well to discussions about your loved one.


Honor Your Loved One Speaking of discussions about your loved one, there are many ways to bring honor to them. At the very least, it is important to acknowledge the loss and the accompanying feelings at family holiday gatherings. Talking about your loss is healing and will help you survive the holidays. Here are some tangible ways to pay tribute to the loved one: *Create a memory box or table and set out some photos and personal items for everyone to reminisce over. *Make some of their favorite healthy foods to share with family members. *Wear an article of their clothing, such as a hat. *Sing or play some of their favorite songs. *Light a memory candle. *Set up a memory jar with slips of paper, read the responses at dinner to invoke memories and conversation. *Go on a ‘memorial walk’ after sharing dinner together at the family gathering.

Give Yourself Permission to Be Happy Yes, you are grieving. How you handle the grief depends on many things, in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and eating healthy, low-sugar, gluten-free foods. The length of time that it has been since your loved one passed is a factor. The number of people at the family holiday gathering and their relationship with your loved one will also play a role. The stage of grief you are in will undoubtedly be a key factor. If it’s been at least a few months, it will be easier to think something like, “although it is sad to remember all the holidays we knew, I will purpose to celebrate in memory of my loved one.” When you are gathered and sharing laughter, it is ok to repeat your thoughts aloud to family and friends.

God didn’t intend for you to be in mourning with no joy for all the remaining days of your life. Give yourself permission to be happy and enjoy time with the family who remains. This includes not depriving yourself of all of your favorite foods. Like most people, you probably have some foods that make you happy when you eat them. Balance in all things is key, and the 80/20 rule is applicable.


Know Your Limits Surviving family holidays is a challenge for anyone and is more of a challenge for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Each of us is different, and you must know your limits during the holiday season. While walking, spend time reflecting on what is a priority to you and which activities stress you out.

There is no rule saying you have to do xyz this year. If your loss is recent, you may opt to spend the day alone or with just a couple of family members or friends. If sending cards is too cumbersome or painful this year, take a year off and resume your tradition next year.

Perhaps you know yourself well enough to realize that gathering with the family is too much this year. Again, there is no rule that says you have to be a part of family holiday festivities this year. If the memories and environment will cause too much stress, you could spend time volunteering at a soup kitchen or with an elderly neighbor who is alone.

I pray you find the strength and determination to be the healthiest version of you possible. By committing to eating a healthy, low-sugar, low-carb, gluten-free diet and to living a healthy lifestyle that includes getting recommended hours of sleep, exercising, and spending time in prayer or quiet reflection, you will feel better physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. Additionally, if you find ways to honor your loved one at a family gathering and set boundaries within your limits, you will not only survive the holidays but also find hope and begin to thrive again.


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