For those who are grieving, the holidays can be among the hardest times of the year, especially when facing the first holiday without a cherished family member.
Grief is an incredibly powerful thing and while one form of grieving might work for one person, it may not for another. In those moments when you remember the gifts a loved one gave, the treats they made and the way their home looked during the most festive time of the year, what are the best ways to cope with sadness and loneliness? How to you process grief when everyone else around you seems to be happy and celebrating?
In the past year, my family has lost three loved ones: my grandfather on my dad's side and my grandmother and great aunt on my mom's. While I'm thankful none of the deaths were caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it's never easy losing someone you love.
As I worked through the grieving process — and continue to work through it — I've found something that's helped me feel better and served as a reminder that I'm not alone in my grief: my Peloton bike.
Whether it's a Disney or ’80s-themed ride, each time I've turned on the Peloton screen I've found classes filled with sing-a-long-worthy songs that keep my mind off the fact that a seat at the table will be empty this holiday season. While singing and sweating, I've been able to pause, assess and remind myself that grief is just a part of life, and it will be OK.
The opportunity to remember my loved one because of a song that's played (hello, Dolly Parton's 9 to 5, which was played at my grandma's funeral) or a sound in a song (like the Magic Kingdom train whistle: blowing it was part of my grandpa's role as a cast member at Walt Disney World) always brings back fond memories. Being able to work through grief with exercise not only allowed me to process death, but helped me to have a goal in mind each day and kept me from overindulging in chocolate and potato chips as funerals were planned and days seemed to never end.
Eileen Branham has also worked through the grieving process, first after losing a baby when she was 21 weeks pregnant, then again when her dad died unexpectedly. Branham says what helped her get through both losses was a combination of having a community of people around her for support and getting up and finding ways to stay moving.
"When we lost our baby, it was before social media," Branham tells Yahoo Life, "After our loss, I found a group of women in an online support group who were going through a loss at the same time. We grieved together, we supported each other and we made each other realize we were not alone."
Branham went back to work less than two weeks after losing her baby because financially, she had to.
"At the time, I didn't know how I would be able to do it, but work actually helped me to escape the grief for a few hours each day and I realized that life would go on — that I could go on even when I didn't really believe it at the time," she explains. "At the time, I was resentful and bitter that I had to return to work — that I couldn't just lay in my bed and grieve like I wanted to — but looking back, I realize work helped me believe things would someday feel better."
When her dad died, Branham says her family was her support system.
"We were all experiencing the loss together," she says, adding that again, she found relief from her grief in staying busy. "We helped my mom do the things Dad would have done for her like pressure wash the driveway, fix the cars and paint the bathroom. It was a way for us to keep him close."
Now Branham keeps one of her dad's work shirts to wear when she does projects around the house because it helps her feel that she's keeping him close.
Both losses helped Branham realize she didn't always have to be strong.
"Grief is like the ocean," she says. "Initially the waves are huge and they knock you down over and over. Then the waves come less frequently and aren't as big, but they still come and occasionally that big wave still knocks you over."
Each year, Branham honors her baby and her dad in special ways.
"Years ago, my sister said she tries to honor the dead by improving an existing life," says Branham, who lives in Gainesville, Fla. "We have carried on this tradition: Every year, we donate to a children's cause on the anniversary of the loss of our son. Once, we donated child carrier slings to mothers in Syria so they could carry their babies like we never got to carry ours."
To honor her dad, Branham's family finds another family in need and helps provide Christmas for them in her dad's honor so his spirit lives on.
"It's a way we've been able to turn our grief into a healing experience," she says.
During the holidays the hardest part of grieving can be getting out of bed to celebrate, especially when you don't feel like celebrating. But Kendall Phillips, a licensed counselor based in Texas, says by moving through exercise, work or helping others, those missing a loved one can process their grief and keep the holidays a bit more cheerful.
"Being active in your present life is important," says Phillips. "Being with your support system, doing things you love to do and engaging in productive and meaningful activities all keep a person looking forward: The sadness over the loss will hopefully be replaced with the good memories of the person or experience that was lost."
Phillips adds it's important to ensure you're not keeping busy and turning your mind to something else as a form of avoidance, which can make the grieving process longer and more intense over time.
So what happens physiologically to someone who's grieving when they do something productive or exciting?
"When someone engages in activities that are productive, feel good and generate a feeling of contentment, peacefulness or even happiness, those emotions will begin to happen more often because happy chemicals in the brain are being released," Phillips explains.
Being with your support system, doing things you love to do and engaging in productive and meaningful activities all keep a person looking forward"Kendall Phillips
Phillips recommends activities like exercise, helping someone in need, baking or listening to a favorite song to start, and reminds grieving individuals that seeing a therapist can also be an important part of processing feelings of sadness.
When it comes to celebrating the holidays, Phillips says the best way to get up from grief and work through it without feeling overwhelmed is to engage with others who are actively celebrating — though she advises against drinking alcohol because it can mask the feelings of sadness and lead to other long-term problems.
"It is OK to not feel fully happy or even act like your normal self," Phillips says, "but it is better to go and continue to have experiences and be with loved ones than to avoid it and remain sad and alone."
By using exercise as a form of grief relief I learned I'm stronger — both physically and mentally — on the other side of grief. Feelings still hit me like a ton of bricks from time to time, but exercise has helped me focus on what made my family members so great and all of the good memories I had with them, rather than dwelling on the fact that they're not here anymore.
I've also learned the best way I can help my family members who are struggling with the same emotions is to show up for myself first, so I can then use that energy from a hard Peloton ride to turn around and help them with whatever they may need.
As for the actual exercise, I do plan to keep going with my cycle habit. Like many, I gained weight during the stressful times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that I can see inches melting away — especially during the sugar-filled holiday season — I want to keep bettering myself. Not only do the clothes I've missed out on wearing over the past year fit again, but I feel better about myself all around, which is the true benefit.
If you are suffering from grief this holiday season, remember you are not alone. There is a community out there who wants to help you and walk alongside you, perhaps literally.
So get moving and know it's OK to think of your loved one while riding that Peloton or helping Mom with yard work. After all, as the great philosopher, Vision from the Marvel Cinematic Universe once said, "What is grief, if not love persevering?"
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