Surviving Grief Over the Holidays

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Special occasions like holidays can be turned upside down and become a source of dread after a loved one dies. If you're feeling this way, you certainly aren't alone. Although the first few years after a loss tend to be the hardest, we know things will never go back to how they were. If we talk honestly with other family members early on, we can minimize stress and surprises and maybe even find ways to bring our lost loved one into the celebrations, helping deepen the true meaning of the season for everyone.

Here are a few practical tips for surviving grief during the often-challenging holiday season.

Name It

If you typically have family celebrations at the holidays, the loss of a family member can change everything, even if that person lived far away. One of the most important things we can do as a holiday approaches is communicate with each other.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. It’s more common to not want to talk about it—here are typical scenarios:

  • No one wants to be the one to bring it up.
  • Some people want to talk, others won’t engage.
  • There are so many emotions in the group—anger, sadness, resentment, fear—that talking about it turns into a rerun of Family Feud.
  • Everyone in the family assumes they’re all on the same page, so it will be fine.
  • Everyone is thinking and feeling something different, so why open that can of conflict?
  • Everyone is so heavy with grief they don’t have the energy to talk about it.

But really, the best way to get through holiday events is to name the elephant in the room. By allowing everyone to communicate their fears and needs, we can mitigate hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and feelings of isolation that only compound the pain that comes with missing the person who is gone.

Create a Practical Plan

Make a date for everyone to get together or start a group email. These discussions can be emotional and tiring—start planning early, leaving time for multiple get-togethers if necessary.

Check In

Often we’re trying to hold it together and just "get through" the holidays, so giving each other a chance to talk about how we really feel can be a gift. Sharing our fears and hopes opens communication lines and brings expectations and assumptions out in the open.

Talk About Traditions

Are there certain traditions that revolve around the person who died? Did that person always do the shopping or prepare the meal? Will you keep that tradition? If so, how will that still happen? Who will be involved?

On the other side of the spectrum, are there new traditions you’d like to start? Maybe this is the year to go to Hawaii, or make donations in lieu of gifts. You could even create a new tradition in memory of your loved one. Changing the way the holidays have always been doesn’t mean you’re "moving on" from your loved one, it can just be something different this year.

These are hard questions that can bring up a lot of complicated emotions. Create time for sharing and coming up with ways to make it less hard.

Make Space for Memories

Are there ways you’d like to acknowledge the person who died? What does that look like? The activity is not as important as the intention and feeling behind it. Here are some ideas:

  • Have a special place for family photo albums or pictures of your loved one where everyone can enjoy.
  • Make a “memory box” where people can write down memories or messages about the loved one, then plan a time to read them together.
  • Designate a special candle in honor of your loved one and have it burning during celebrations.
  • Set a place at the table for your loved one. If it’s too hard to have an empty chair, invite someone new to the gathering.
  • Make your loved one’s favorite dish or dessert.
  • Volunteer or donate in honor of your loved one.
  • If you are feeling crafty, make a memorial ornament, box or collage—this is great to do with kids.
  • Observe a moment of silence, read a poem or prayer, or toast in honor of your loved one.
Reconnect with Meaning

Talk to family about the significance of this season. What is meaningful about this holiday or event? What’s the essence of it? Aligning with what’s really important can help clarify priorities and let go of things that don’t go as planned.

Take Care of Yourself

Even in this season of “giving,” it is essential that you take care of yourself. Everything is harder when you are compromised. We also forget that grief is exhausting —give yourself time and space and permission for what you need.

  • Staying connected to your body will help you identify your feelings—and help them change and move through. Whatever keeps you in touch with yourself, be it a structured practice like yoga for grief, or an informal walk through your neighborhood.
  • Self care starts with the simple things—drink enough water, eat nourishing food, and stay rested. Make sure your basic needs are met and you’ll feel more steady as the waves of grief rise and fall.
  • You don’t have to go to any event or gathering. No matter how important it is to someone else, if you aren’t ready, you don’t have to go. Honest communication can go a long way here: “This season is turning out to be really hard for me, and as much as I’d like to go, it’s just too painful. Staying home is the best way I can take care of myself.”
  • If you do go to a party or event, have an exit route—a departure time and reason for when you’re ready to leave. Even if you don’t follow the plan, knowing you have it can be soothing. If you go with someone, have a code word. The truth is, you don’t owe an explanation to anyone.
  • This might be a great time to see or revisit a therapist or support group. Remember that you’re not alone.
  • Simplify where you can. Can you skip gifts? Holiday cards? Decorations? Again, you get to decide how much engagement with this season feels supportive for you.
  • Make space for quiet. With the chaos of the season, our senses can be on overload. This in itself can stress the nervous system. Designate as much time as you need—be it a few minutes every morning or a whole afternoon—for reflection, nature time, or journaling. Whatever feels rejuvenating to you.
  • Accept help. If you would like someone to go through the box of Christmas tree ornaments or attend a church service with you, just ask! Most likely your friends want to be there for you and don’t know how.
  • It’s OK to be joyful. Grief involves the full-continuum of emotion. You might go from feeling sad in one moment, completely fine the next, then angry, and end up in tears of gratitude. Grief is like that. Nothing good comes from having guilt about happy times. While it can feel odd to have feelings of joy or break into laughter, it doesn’t diminish your love of the person you miss.
  • Lastly, remember that everyone experiences loss and grief differently. Even children from the same family will have different experiences and memories of childhood. So no expectations for everyone to feel or respond like you do.

Even though this season will never be the same, there are ways to make the holidays more bearable. Yes, it will be hard at times—there might be tears, awkward moments, and hiccups. It can also include pleasant surprises, reconnections, and happy memories. When we talk honestly as a family, we can reduce the suffering that comes from feeling isolated and misunderstood.

So rather than locking yourself in your room until January 2nd, consider this a time of reinvention. Decide what parts of the holiday—whatever you celebrate—help bring the memory of your loved one into the season in ways that feel meaningful to you. Maybe that’s on the beach in Hawaii, or maybe it’s eating your loved one’s favorite casserole. It won’t be like holidays past, but it will be deliberate and you’ll navigate whatever comes with more compassion and grace.

SOS Practice: Lengthen the Exhale

About the Author

Michelle Marlahan

Michelle is a yoga teacher based in Sacramento. You can practice with her on Yoga Anytime in Yoga for Grief.


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