Credit: George Danby / BDN

Sara Pequeno is a Raleigh, North Carolina-based opinion writer for McClatchy’s North Carolina Opinion Team and member of the editorial board.

The last “normal” Christmas, December 2019, was the last time I saw my grandma. She was years into an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and she had to be moved to an assisted living facility soon after the holidays. COVID made it next to impossible to visit.

I had a gut feeling 2019 would be our last Christmas, but now I’m staring down the reality of a Christmas without her. My grandfather, my mom and my aunt are learning to cope with it too. It’s a time of year already known for its nostalgia and silent melancholy, exacerbated by the notion that we should be feeling cheery.

We aren’t the only family dealing with grief. Polling from The Economist found that an eighth of U.S. residents lost a family member due to COVID, and a fifth lost a close friend. That study used data from mid-October — and on Dec. 14, Johns Hopkins University reported 800,000 COVID deaths in the United States since March 2020. It’d be like if 90 percent of Charlotte, North Carolina’s, population was completely wiped out in two years.

Cali Park, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at Thriveworks in Raleigh, North Carolina, said death isn’t the only sort of grief people are dealing with: they could be grieving a lost relationship, the end of a friendship or the life plans that have gone completely off track.

“Grief is associated with a loss of someone and adjusting to the difficult aspects,” she said. “However, it can be [that] the person is still here with us, but we no longer share the same relationship. A lot of people are going through that.”

Park’s main advice for someone dealing with loss this holiday season is recognizing the feelings that come along with grief — anger, anxiety, helplessness, etc. — are normal and valid things to feel. Having personal check-ins amongst the holiday hustle will help you digest those feelings.

“It’s even more reason to remember to be kind to yourself and to look after your own needs, whether that’s physical self care, or emotional self care, or even spiritual self care,” she said.

There is a lot during the holidays that you won’t be able to change; I can’t change the absence of my grandma, and I can’t change that I miss her. It is possible, however, to change your holiday traditions to better suit your needs. Instead of the traditional holiday meal at home, you could choose to go out to eat. If being at home is difficult, you could plan a trip, even if it’s just to the next town over. You could start a new tradition, like lighting a candle to symbolize your grief.

Joanne Zerdy, a grief worker and the co-founder of Inviting Abundance in Asheville, North Carolina, suggested “sitting with your grief,” and finding short periods of time in your daily life to meditate on what you’re feeling and how you’re feeling it. For Zerdy, that time is when she’s kneading dough.

“Some really profound insights can arise about how you are holding [grief] in your body,” she said. “What does it feel like to put in that time journaling, or talking out loud, or crying, or whatever you need to do to process, and then how you feel on the other side of it.”

Park and Zerdy recommend acts of service as a way of remembering your loved ones, whether it be spending time volunteering with their favorite non-profit or making donations in their name.

Zerdy stresses that grief is not confined to ourselves, nor does it have to be a group activity. It is a balancing act intended to help us distribute the weight of trauma.

“That kind of intuitive feeling arises of ‘I really do think I need to do something,’ or ‘No, I’m sick of advice, I really want to just be with myself,’” she said. “I think that we get a lot of insight about our experience when we can do both on our own time.”

If you’re grieving like we are over the holidays, you aren’t alone. We’re all just trying to process it on our own time.