Handling Grief at the Holidays

Coping with the absence of a loved one is never easy, but it can be especially difficult during the fall and winter holiday months. When you’re surrounded by cheerful music and festive celebrations it seems mean-spirited to admit to stress or feelings of sadness. And yet the very reasons why the holidays are so magical—the traditions, the time spent with loved ones—can also make this season difficult. If you’re grieving or if your loved one is in the final stages of an illness, or if you’re the one who is too sick to travel to a family gathering, it’s especially important to honor your emotions and memories. These suggestions might help.

When You Can’t Be With Your Loved Ones

One way to cope with the changes is to look for something positive to focus on. You might remind yourself that, as your family has grown, you’ve found holiday events increasingly exhausting so it’s nice to spend the day quietly. Instead of missing everyone, remember that you are protecting yourself from the chaos that family gatherings often bring. By staying home, you are giving yourself the opportunity to celebrate on your terms, getting together with family and friends when you feel up to it.

  • Schedule brief visits. If you aren’t up for hosting the whole family for Thanksgiving or attending a big New Year’s Eve party, consider whether a few smaller gatherings, spread over a few days or even weeks, would work. Invite one or two couples over for a quiet evening, or perhaps have your children’s families over individually for small celebrations.
  • Set the table the way you want. Cooking a lavish meal with all the trimmings is a lot of effort, but you can still have a feast—and you can have it on your terms. Instead of a turkey, consider roasting a chicken or Cornish game hens, and prepare only the side dishes you love. If cooking isn’t among your talents, order a meal from a local restaurant, caterer, or even a supermarket. Use your favorite place settings and add a pretty centerpiece—or use paper plates if that’s what you’re up for.
  • Stay in touch with those you love. Do you have a computer with a webcam, or a tablet or smartphone? Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger are popular services that allow you to have face-to-face conversations.

When Loss Is Imminent

If your loved one is in the final stages of an illness over the holidays the sense of impending loss can be magnified. “My dad died on New Year’s Eve when I was a senior in high school,” remembers Linda Kelley. “He had cancer, and we knew the end was near, but he and my mom tried to make everything as normal as possible. I remember we spent our Christmas vacation planning his funeral! This was 35 years ago, and it’s still hard to go out and see everyone throwing confetti and blowing noisemakers and wishing each other, ‘Happy New Year!’ I usually avoid big parties, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s less painful in the long run to honor my dad’s memory by lifting a glass to him, rather than letting the holiday season dredge up my grief.”

  • Banish guilt. There will be times when you are going to feel sad—and that’s normal. It is also normal to laugh and have fun with family and friends. You aren’t bad or disloyal if you let yourself get caught up in the festivities and enjoy yourself. Give yourself permission to accept these feelings and do not feel guilty about them.
  • Resist the urge to overindulge. Taking care of yourself physically will give you the strength you’ll need for the “down” days. Try to work a little exercise into your day (even if it’s getting off the bus or subway one stop farther) and get plenty of rest.
  • Reduce but don’t eliminate. Lower demands and expectations of yourself. Shorten or pass on sending your greeting cards this year. If shopping is too stressful, consider giving gift certificates. Accept at least one party invitation and go with a close friend. If you want to leave early, that’s OK—you may find it helpful to try to take part.

Facing the Holiday Season After a Loss

Holidays are rife with memories and rituals, and once-joyful occasions can trigger profound sorrow and reminders of your loved one’s absence. “The first holidays after my husband died were horrible,” says Nancy Berman. “I couldn’t understand why people were happy when my loss was so profound and so fresh. But what surprised me was that the second year was even worse! I was in such a daze the first year, and friends and family surrounded my kids and me from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. The second year was much less blurry emotionally, and much more difficult for all of us. We switched things up a little—we did some of the traditional things, but we also started some new traditions.”

  • Try not to ignore the holidays. Ignoring the holidays takes tremendous energy since there seem to be signs and symbols of them everywhere you go. Consider participating in meaningful activities, like volunteering at a food bank or helping out with a local coat drive. Try doing something special or unexpected for someone in need.
  • Change the surroundings. Whether you switch things up by going out of town for Thanksgiving or putting the menorah or tree in a different room, a new setting can lessen the reminder of your loss. Or consider starting a new tradition. Doing something new may help to keep you from comparing the current holiday celebration with those in the past.
  • Trust yourself. Don’t feel obligated to keep up with family traditions. If it doesn’t feel right to do something you’ve “always” done, give yourself permission to skip it this year.
  • Keep the memory of your loved one alive. If your husband had a favorite charity, donate the money you would’ve spent on his present in his name. Make your mom’s signature recipe to bring to a holiday potluck.
  • Seek professional assistance. There is a world of support available, such as support groups and other offerings from your faith-based organization. VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care also offers bereavement counseling and can help you connect with these resources.