Grief and the Holidays: Getting Through the Holidays After Losing a Loved One

“Through the years we all will be together

If the fates allow

So hang a shining star upon the highest bough

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now”


This is my favorite Christmas song of all time, particularly the Judy Garland version. There is something so splendidly melancholy about it, and yet there is still a hopeful undertone to the whole piece. It’s that first line that really pulls at my heart though. “Through the years we all will be together.” It’s as if, as she sings it, she knows that it is not entirely true and is just a hopeful fantasy. Each time I hear that line, I am reminded how death has transformed the holidays as I knew them in my family. Christmases will never be the same with my grandparents gone. It is not only the missing them that I am talking about. Since they have passed, the whole family never gets together as it used to. Cousins and/or siblings get married, have children of their own, and spend their holidays with their new families. Everything changed when my Nana passed away and I remember the holidays highlighting this loss in a way I did not expect. Whether or not a loss is recent or not, the holidays can bring up feelings of loss and grief as they are usually times we would have spent with our loved one(s). Not only this, but holidays may transform throughout the years as families shrink and expand. This can also bring up these feelings of loss and nostalgia as we transition into new phases in our lives. If you find yourself struggling with some of these emotions in the wake of the holiday season, here are some tips to help you cope.


Keep your loved one’s memory alive. This is something that can be meaningful no matter when a loss has occurred but can be particularly healing especially if the loss was recent. Carve out some time on that special day to dedicate to your loved one. Spend some time looking at old photos or take turns swapping stories with others who loved them as well. You may even do something more formal such as asking anyone who is interested in commemorating your loved one to bring in an item that reminds them of the loved one and to take turns sharing about it. By sharing about your loved one in this way, it helps you to still feel connected to that person. If you are more private, take some time to yourself to talk to your loved one or perhaps to write them a letter. Just because a person has passed on, does not mean that our relationship with them has ended. The holidays are a good opportunity to continue that relationship.


Stick to old traditions. Sometimes, in the wake of a very fresh loss, it can be too painful to do certain things we traditionally have always done with the one we lost. I had a very close friend who lost her mother and could not watch a certain Christmas movie for quite some time after her death because it was something they had always done together. I believe that with time she was able to watch the film again. We do not want to cause ourselves more pain than we are already experiencing, but when we feel we are ready, it is important to stick to old traditions that remind us of our loved one. These traditions not only aid us in keeping their memory alive, but they also help us to feel more rooted and to maintain some consistency in the otherwise transitioning holiday season.


Try out new traditions. Just as old traditions can help us to feel connected to the past, new traditions can help us to feel hopeful and excited for the future. New traditions can help us to connect to other family members and create new memories. You can even create a new tradition that still honors the past. Perhaps you and some family members can gather and light candles or hold a moment of silence for those individuals who are no longer with you. Creating a new tradition that honors the past is a small way that may help with the transition into holidays without your loved one(s).


Allow yourself to feel and seek support. I will be the first to admit that I do not always like being emotional around some of my family members. It is difficult to be vulnerable like that in such a way, however it is an important step in the grieving process to allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. Many people believe that grief is all about sadness and that could not be farther from the truth. Grief can be expressed through feelings of anger, hopelessness, irritation, frustration, depression, and anxiety. Understand that there is no right or wrong way to feel and that your process is yours alone and your journey may look different from someone else’s. Keeping all of these feelings to yourself can be just as damaging as stuffing them and not allowing yourself to feel them at all. It can be difficult but find someone that you trust and reach out to them this holiday season to ask for their support so that you do not have to struggle alone.


Manage expectations and set boundaries. It is always important to set boundaries, however if you are reeling from a more recent loss or are actively grieving, it is particularly important. When you are grieving you are in a more vulnerable emotional state and your threshold and tolerance certain things is generally compromised. During the holidays we often get flooded with invites to different parties and events. This can be overwhelming to someone who is not struggling through grief and can be absolutely paralyzing to those who are. Understand that it is okay to say no to some gatherings and events. While we do not want to completely isolate ourselves, we also do not want to overwhelm ourselves and distract from our feelings because they will undoubtedly manifest in other ways. Take on only what you can handle and take time to take care of yourself. Do not expect the holidays to just somehow go on business as usual. Things will be different. Make sure to check in with your expectations and remind yourself that the sparkle of the season will not make everything magically better.


Loss is an incredibly difficult human experience and the holiday season never fails to make our losses seem more salient. With that, the holidays also have the remarkable capability to bring us closer to other things. The holidays can connect us with family and friends that we have not seen for a time. The holidays can be a time to honor and connect with the past through tradition. They can also be a time for us to embrace change and look hopefully towards the future. The holidays can help us to connect to our faith as we open up our spirits to the season. Through the pain, there is love and above all, the holidays encourage us to cherish those in our life now and remember those who have passed. Perhaps Judy was right after all, we all will be together.


By: Hayley Nelson


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