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Managing Emotional and Cognitive Grief Reactions Around the Holidays


Strategies for emotional pain

When intense grief and emotional pain is too much to manage around the holidays, consider any of the following strategies:

  • Metaphors. Use a metaphor analogy to describe your experience. These statements can help you describe the intensity of your loss.
  • Discover the Power of Writing: Write about your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Write poetry or a letter to the person who died. Keep a grief diary where you monitor your range of emotions, feelings and the points in the day when grief was at its highest intensity. As you review past entries, see how you have processed and integrated painful emotions and how your loss narrative has changed over time.


  • Potential Stressors and Triggers. Be self-aware of those things (e.g., objects, sounds, smells) that spark a negative reaction. Be aware of your motivations for managing triggers. With repeated exposure as you confront the reminder, the intensity will lessen.
  • Self-Regulation. To calm yourself down, focus on adjusting your temperature just like it was a thermostat. Focus on reducing the intensity and the frequency of an impulse. Pay attention to the way that you talk to yourself.
  • Maintain Boundaries. Identify your motivations for maintaining limits when others expect too much. Learn to say no in order not to be overwhelmed and regulate your mental health.
  • Keep Your Sense of Humor. Laughter is a coping mechanism when going through the grieving process. Humor is emotion-focused coping. Humor can alleviate stress in the moment. Share a funny story about the person who died, but don’t make joke about yourself or use humor to aggressively hurt others.
  • Self-Compassion. Kristen Neff’s concept explores ways to be self-compassionate. Be kind to yourself as no one is perfect. Other people grieve too. Keep it all in perspective. Although you feel guilty or believe you made a mistake, give yourself a break.


Strategies for intense thoughts

When intense thoughts are too much to manage, consider these strategies:

  • Flexibility. Use mental energy. Although it is not easy to shift your attention when strong feelings of grief rob you of your energy, control your thinking by contemplating solutions to the problem. To support emotional resilience, change your thinking about what is going on in the moment. Accept what is. Contemplate alternative views, and adapt accordingly. Incorporate flexibility into your day by playing a board game or doing a puzzle.
  • Attitude of Gratitude. You approach grief a certain way whether you have a negative or positive view. Your response to loss is based on your goals, values, and perceptions about your world and past experiences. To change your attitude, focus on your motivations for remaining grateful. Make a list of things you feel grateful for having in your life.
  • Realistic Optimism. Realizing that you can’t change what happened, you see things as they are. Although it is not what you want, you are trying your best. Where realism is your view of the facts related to loss, optimism is your confidence to handle the challenges you face.
  • Learning. Read books and articles about grief and bereavement. Listen to podcasts about coping with life stressors.
  • Stay Motivated. Consider your best interests and what motivates you as you match your goals for the day. Without motivation, it is difficult to act.
  • Identification. You may have an unclear sense of who you are which can cause identity disruption. If you no longer have a role in the relationship, you can have an unclear sense of self. If you have thoughts that a part of yourself has died along with the deceased person, consider who you are now and how your identity continues to intertwine with them in your everyday life.
  • Cognitive Reframing. Interrupt your harsh self-narrative. Challenge negative thoughts. Replace them and the words you use to describe your feelings of loss with positive ones: “I’m alone in my grief” becomes “I’m not alone; others are grieving too.”
  • Managing Intrusive Thoughts. Be self-aware of negative thoughts. Identify your motivations for problem-solving to increase the ability to manage reactions. If you think, “My life is empty without them,” then your feelings will likely reflect that thought. Separating thoughts from intense emotions is challenging. Explore ways to manage your thoughts, especially when your mind is racing, you feel preoccupied, or confused. If after a long period of time, you have a marked sense of disbelief and cannot accept that the person is dead, consider what you are avoiding.
  • Reconstruction. Perhaps you’re hearing negative messages in your head like, “I should be getting more done” or “I should be better by now.” Notice thoughts that create a negative feeling. Some thoughts – like despair and emptiness – are hard to tolerate and lead to uncomfortable feelings. Change the way you think by reconstructing these messages into, “It’s OK to feel whatever I’m feeling because there’s no set-in-stone way to feel when grieving.”
  • Goal Setting and Time Management. Be accountable for a realistic short-term achievement. Prioritize what is important. Consistently reflect on what needs to be done to achieve your goal.
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Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.

Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon -

• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.

• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.

• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.


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