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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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