Holidays without Loved Ones: A Tough Time for Family.

There are plenty of articles out there on coping with grief during the holidays. Experts tell you what to “do” to feel better.  In my case, I’m writing from a different perspective. Technically I am a “thanatology fellow,” which means I’ve studied grief and the processes that surround it. But while that’s my professional background, I’m also someone who is grieving, and I still get sideswiped by that pit in my stomach when I think about my father, who died when I was twenty-one. But I’ve made progress, and I wanted to share some things that have helped me with grief and the holidays, in the hopes they might help you too. 


How Do I Deal with Holiday Grief?

I come from a large Italian family. Christmas involves weeks of planning and hosting a multi-course Christmas Eve dinner, followed by gifts and more of the same on Christmas day. As a child, for me this was perfection. I assumed my grandmother and my aunts would be around forever to recreate meals from “The Old Country.”


When I hit my teenage years, I looked at traditions a bit differently. Being forced to watch “Frosty the Snowman” was annoying. But then the older folks in my family started to die, and holidays without loved ones became a point of sadness. It may seem like a small thing, but when Christmas came around, we’d ask someone from a younger generation to tackle the “missing” dish for our feast as a way of honoring them. The year my grandmother’s dish was the one missing from the table was the hardest for me. 


Because she was newly grieving at Christmas that year, I noticed my own mother seeming less joyful, and I decided to fill in where my grandmother had left off by helping with the cooking and the other traditions. I was wise enough to know to help my mom, but naïve enough to believe that I understood loss. When my dad died just a few years later, I was devastated, and grieving during the holidays only exasperated my pain. How could our family celebrate when he wasn’t there smiling? 


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Can You Still Celebrate Christmas When You’re Grieving?

I struggled. I tried to be positive, but I avoided certain situations.  Sometimes I drank too much and cried when I was alone. I was physically present, but was often mentally “not there.” I don’t remember much from those holiday seasons because I didn’t look forward to celebrating. My goal was simply surviving. 


The answer to what to do with your grief during the holidays must be a personal one. It will depend on where you are in your grief, your relationship to the holidays, and your family's traditions. The most important thing to note is that celebrating or not celebrating is your choice. If it will lift you and your loved ones up to share happy memories, a special dish, or a family tradition in honor of the person you've lost, then you should absolutely celebrate and welcome the joy those things bring.


If on the other hand it doesn't feel right to put aside your grief during the holidays, then honor that. It is perfectly OK to not be ready, even when others are. 


Grief and the Holidays: It Gets Better with Time Even If It’s Never Gone

Over a decade later, I am now decorating the Christmas tree with my nephew, baking a yule log with my mom, singing carols with my new husband, and preparing for my family’s Christmas Eve feast. Sounds good, right? Am I healed? Not completely. I often need a moment during each of these joyous activities--a moment to for holiday grief. I still miss Dad and I long for him to just be there


What helps me is, despite the fact that everyone in my family feels grief at Christmas, I believe that Dad would  want us as a family to continue to share our traditions with the next generations. So that’s what I do--in his honor. And in honoring him, I feel that spark of joy that was at the heart of who my father was. 


When You Need More Help with Your Holiday Grief


Tips for Dealing with Grief at Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years

These are some tips that have worked for me while dealing with holiday grief. I hope some of them might help you on your own journey. My wish is that you’ll not only survive, but thrive during the holidays as you move forward in loving memory, even though holidays without loved ones are surely tough.


Tip 1: Find a tradition that works for you 

In my case, I returned to taking part in and even hosting our Christmas Eve dinner. I found cooking cathartic and was able to focus on the recipes more than the grief. Also, being in the kitchen gave me an excuse to “hide” when necessary. Is there a tradition you can use as a support while going through your own holiday grief process?


Tip 2: Sometimes you need to change the tradition

One year, I couldn’t handle going out and buying a tree and decorating. That year, I went modern-minimalist and put up a silver fake branchy tree. My family--fresh Christmas tree snobs--may have been shocked, but I gave myself permission to do what I had to do. You should too, no matter your holiday traditions. 


Tip 3: Plan ahead for what you might not be able to handle

If you're grieving at Christmas, for example, maybe you can deal with one day of family celebrations, but the idea of more is too much. It’s okay to say you already have plans if you can’t handle a party. And it’s fine to decide in advance when you might need to leave or to plan for situations that might trigger you, such as emotional stories or moments that make holiday grief more painful. Even if you just feel sideswiped by grief, it's okay to make an early exit. That’s called self-care, and it works!


Tip 4: Do something good for others 

Don’t push yourself if your grief is fresh. But if you have the time and the means to help others, it might help you, too. In my family we go to the post office and collect cards that kids have written to Santa. We buy those gifts and send them in Santa’s name!  The point is not to do something big. You can help someone you know needs help, volunteer, or just give a larger tip to someone who has an under-appreciated job. It’s a win-win, and we need more of those right about now.


Tip 5: Take care of you

Sometimes holiday grief makes us forget ourselves in the wake of the one we’ve lost, which leads to patterns that prolong our suffering. Try to eat right and exercise a bit.  If possible, don’t drink too much at the holiday party! But if you do, forgive yourself. Buy yourself a treat or get a massage. Go for walks or try something new. 


Tip 6: Let yourself grieve

If you find yourself sadder than usual at this time of year, that’s normal, as grief during the holidays triggers emotion. Give yourself space and time to feel your feelings, and lean on those who love you for extra support. 


It's really important to take care of yourself while you're grieving, especially during the holidays. We've also got some solid advice on how to answer the question, "How Are You?" while grieving.