Holidays are milestones, marking the passage of time in our lives. They are remembered for the experiences we share, and the time spent with family.

It is for this reason that holidays are quite often a difficult time for those who have lost a loved one.

For many people, this is the hardest part of grieving – experiencing those times of the year when a departed loved one is missed even more than usual.

A Time for Remembering

Memories of good times and togetherness during the holiday season also tend to remind us of our loss.

Watching others who are thankful and celebrating when we ourselves feel overwhelmed, lonely, and sad can be very painful.

Holidays force us to realize how much our lives have changed after the death of a loved one.

Particularly in the first year, many people have to face the need to develop new holiday rituals and traditions, or to adapt old routines.

How do you celebrate togetherness when there is none? In fact, how do you celebrate at all?

Feelings are Magnified

Holidays magnify the loss one feels at the death of a loved one. Paradoxically, this loss may be felt more, not less, as time passes.

Sometimes, anticipation of an upcoming holiday without a loved one can be more difficult and stressful than the actual holiday itself.

Your need for support may be greatest during the holidays.  At the same time, you want to avoid taking away from the happy experiences of those around you.

Rather than avoiding the feelings of grief, lean into and embrace them.  Accept that what you feel is part of the process of grieving.  Ultimately a healthy process of grieving will take you beyond the pain and emptiness you are feeling.

How to Survive the Holidays After Losing a Loved One

That said, there are a number of ways to incorporate your grieving and the loss of your loved one into the holidays.

First, know that you can and will get through the holidays.  

Grief is our internal feelings, and mourning is our external expression of that feeling.

Ways to Externalize Your Loss

Give it a time and a place in your holiday experience:

  1. Say a prayer about your loved one before your holiday dinner.
  2. Light a candle for your loved one.
  3. Create an online tribute for your loved one.
  4. Have everyone share a funny story or memory about your loved one
  5. Remember them in a prayer at your place of worship
  6. Talk with others about them
  7. Donate money or time in their name.

Ways to Cope

Allow for the fact that you may simply not want to spend time with family or friends, and you may need some time to be alone.

Not that you should withdraw from the world entirely, but have both a Plan A and a Plan B.

For example, if Plan A is to have dinner with your family and friends, Plan B may be to go to a movie you both liked, or to stay home and look through photo albums.

Many people find that just having an alternate plan in place is enough to get them through difficult times.

For some, the holiday routine is an important framework, even if your feelings are sad. Life goes on. We survive.

On the other hand, you are absolutely permitted to cancel the holiday, at least in your own life.  If you are just going through the motions and feeling nothing, skip the holiday this year.  They will come around again.

It’s okay to avoid some holiday circumstances that you don’t feel ready to handle yet, but don’t isolate yourself too much. Allow yourself time for solitude, remembering, and grieving, but balance it by spending time with others.

Try experiencing the holiday in a new way. You are entitled to evaluate what parts of the holiday you enjoy and what parts you don’t.

You have a right to decide what is right for you, and to do it. You are also entitled to change your mind, even a few times.

It is natural to feel like you may never enjoy the holidays again.

Certainly, the holidays will probably never be the same, but in time most people are able to find meaning again in the traditions.

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do be gentle with yourself. Set realistic expectations for yourself and decide if you want to take on the same responsibilities you’ve had in the past, or whether you want to continue the same events. You may want to avoid the usual hustle and bustle. Physical exercise, even just walking, is often a good antidote for feelings of depression.
  • Do take up others on offers to cook, shop, decorate, clean, etc. Consider shopping by phone, Internet, or catalogs this year.
  • Don’t do more than you want, and don’t do anything that does not serve to sooth your soul or cope positively with the emptiness or sadness you feel.
  • Do allow time for the feelings. Allow yourelf to feel joy, sadness, and even anger. All are part of the grieving process. Experiencing joy or laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
  • Don’t keep your feelings bottled up. If you have 500 tears to cry don’t stop at 250.
  • Do allow others to help. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Let your family know of any intended changes in holiday routines.
  • Do share your memories with others of holidays spent by telling stories and looking at photo albums.
  • Do pay extra attention to the children. They are too often the forgotten grievers.

Holidays are the most difficult times after the loss of a loved one. The best ways to handle those times are as individual as we are. There is not right or wrong way to celebrate or observe the holiday season after the death of a loved one.  Plan ahead, get support from others, and take it easy.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is a process. The holidays are part of that journey, but you don’t have to remain in pain in order to remember and honor the person who has passed.


Jamie Allar
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