Grief and the Holidays

Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays, and anniversaries; for most people, just thinking about these special days spent with family and friends can bring back a flood of happy memories.  However, for others, happy memories are dulled by the pain and sorrow of experiencing the holidays without a loved one who has died.

Holidays and special days, such as birthdays and anniversaries, are extremely difficult for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, especially during the first year after the death.  At a time when everyone is supposed to be happy and enjoying themselves, the bereaved can feel sad, lonely, and depressed.

It seems everywhere you turn there is something to break your heart a little more.  Stores are decorated with the symbols of the holiday.  Television and radio abound with stories and songs of togetherness, love, and sharing.  Everyone you meet asks that question you dread hearing, “What are you doing for the holidays?” they cannot seem to wait for that special day to arrive.  You can’t wait for it to be over.

The holidays do not necessarily have to be entirely sad.  There are ways to help you cope with your grief during this time. The following steps will help you get through this difficult time of year.

Plan Ahead

Bereaved individuals who seem to experience the most difficulty with the holidays are those who have given little thought to the challenges they will encounter.  Many people who are grieving feel that they would like to just go to sleep and wake up when the holidays are over.  Hiding from the holidays should not be an option.  So, in dealing with them, do it proactively and plan ahead.

During the planning, you may experience some emotional pain.  As much as it hurts, it is helpful to you.  You will find that when the holiday actually arrives, it is likely to be less painful that you anticipated.

Accept Your Limitations

The number of decisions you have to make during the holidays along with the family and social pressure that accompanies them can be overwhelming.

Decisions to deal with:

To accept or decline party and dinner invitations.
What about cooking and baking?
Should the house be decorated?
What would be best for the children?
What would be best for me?
What to do about traditions – forget them for this year, try them, or develop new ones?
Should a visit be made to the cemetery that day?
How will I ever get out of bed that morning?

Do not let these decisions make you feel worse.  Choose a few to deal with at a time so as not to overwhelm yourself.

Taking Care of Yourself

Take care of yourself physically.  A grieving body is more susceptible to illness and needs proper nourishment and rest.

Exercising reduces stress and can increase your sense of wellbeing.  If you are not presently exercising, don’t overdo it.  Start by simply walking.  As you gain strength and stamina, increase your speed and distance.

Eat a properly balanced diet.  Your body needs the strength and energy it can acquire from eating properly.  Fight the tendency to rely on junk food because it’s faster, easier, and less of a hassle.

Excessive use of drugs or alcohol will only postpone the painful feelings not eliminate them.  A mild sedative or anti-anxiety medications prescribed by a physician can even out your feelings and help you deal with your loss.  Just do not overdo them as a way to completely bury your pain.

Get adequate rest.  Experiencing the death of a loved one requires a great deal of physical and emotional strength.  Your body and mind need rest to regenerate.

Be Prepared

Expect some physical and emotional responses to your loss.  Although everyone’s grief is different there are some responses that are commonly experienced by most bereaved people. 

These include:

PHYSICAL                                                                 EMOTIONAL

Stomach distress                                                      Shock

Difficulty breathing                                                   Disbelief

Muscle weakness                                                     Sadness

Dry mouth                                                                  Loneliness

Headache                                                                  Guilt

Chest pain                                                                 Anger

Change in bowel pattern                                        Anxiety

Change in eating habits                                          Crying

Lack of energy                                                          Nightmares

Nervousness                                                             Lack of concentration

Difficulty sleeping                                                     Fear

Over-activity                                                               Preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased

Skin rash                                           

These physical and emotional responses are normal grief reactions and can be experienced by adults and children.

It’s Okay to Feel Sad

The holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations of happiness and joy.  Even people who have not experienced a major loss can feel the pressures, depression, and fatigue that come with the holidays.

Accept that there will be times when you are sad and depressed.  Give yourself permission to feel sad.  Grievers have every right to feel sad, depressed, and anxious.

It’s Okay to Feel Good

Also, give yourself permission to feel good, to laugh, and even to have fun.  Some bereaved individuals feel guilty if they find themselves enjoying an activity.

Feeling good and laughing is your body’s way of letting you relax and regain some strength for a few moments during your grief.  It is a normal and healthy reaction.  You are in no way being disrespectful to the memory of the deceased if you enjoy yourself at times.

Cry, cry, cry

Whatever you do, allow yourself to cry when you feel a need to cry.  Ignore any advice you hear to be strong, don’t cry.  Crying helps you both physically and emotionally.  It has an effect similar to exercise in that it reduces stress and calms anxiety.

Lower Expectations

Go easy on yourself.  Remember you are going through a physically and emotionally stressful time.  If you want the holidays to be the same as they always were, you are in for disappointment and frustration.  No matter what you do, you will not feel as joyous as you did during past holidays.  This doesn’t mean you still cannot enjoy the day, even smile and laugh.  It will take time for you to adjust - maybe years.

Confide in someone

Find someone who will listen to you without feeling he must come up with answers to your problems.  What you need is someone who will let you say the words that are bottled up inside you even if it’s over and over again.  This person may be a family member, friend, or clergy.  If you do not know this type of person, visit a professional grief counselor.

Holiday Activities


If you feel you must shop, pick a time when the stores are not crowded, such as early in the morning when the stores first open.  If you don’t want to face it alone, ask someone to go with you.  If going to stores to shop seem too difficult, try using a catalog or the home shopping programs on television.

Sending Letters

You mailing list can be shortened or even omitted this year.

Accepting Invitations

Lower demands and expectations on yourself.  You may not want to accept every invitation you receive or participate in all of your usual activities.  However, if you find yourself declining all invitations and postponing all activities, push yourself to attend or participate in some events.  You may enjoy them or actually feel comforted by them.

Traditions: Old and New

One of the most difficult aspects of the holidays to deal with is “traditions.” A death in the family may mean that a much loved tradition may lose some of its joy.  It may even end.  However, do not discount the possibility that new traditions can be started.

If you always host a meal on the holiday and serve the same food, try changing the menu.  You can ask someone else to act as host this year.  Many people have found that eating out that day can reduce stress and anxiety.  Attend religious services at a different time or location.  Some holiday grievers have even found that going away on a short trip during the holidays was a welcome change.

If other family members are also grieving, it is necessary to discuss what your needs are to determine if they combine or conflict with your family’s needs.  During this discussion, it is important to be honest about your feelings.  It is usually necessary to be somewhat flexible so a meaningful compromise can be worked out that will be helpful to everyone involved.

Remember that if you try something new and it doesn’t work, you do not have to keep doing it.

Memorialize your loved one in a way that is meaningful to you. Choosing an activity that your loved one would have approved of can make it even more meaningful. An activity that the entire family can participate in can strengthen the bonds of togetherness and sharing.  However, it is also appropriate for individual family and sharing.  However, it is also appropriate for individual family members to create a memorial activity that is person and private – something that is between just them and the deceased.

The following suggestions come from bereaved individuals who memorialized their loved one or started new traditions.

  • Purchase a small evergreen tree from a nursery, decorate it and replant it after Christmas.
  • Light special memorial candles each day during the holidays or use on larger candle and light it each day.
  • Display a single fresh flower during the holidays.
  • Have a special time when the family shares holiday memories of your deceased loved one.
  • Offer a dinner prayer or toast to your loved one.
  • Purchase a gift for your loved one and then donate it to a charity.
  • Hang a special Christmas stocking in memory of the loved one.
  • Give money in the amount you would have spent on gifts to a charity in the deceased’s name.
  • Celebrate a holiday on another day such as Christmas on New Year’s Day.
  • Focus on helping others.

Although these special tributes may cause some tears, they are usually helpful and therapeutic in your struggle to get through the holidays.

Children and the Holidays

Be prepared for any type of response from adolescents.  For teenagers, the death of a loved one during this time of their life is very difficult.  Be patient even if they are being hurtful or mean. 

Also, children or teens may try to be “strong” and protect a grieving parent by taking on added responsibilities.  They shouldn’t be used as a crutch.  They need to grieve too.

On the holiday itself, don’t expect the children to spend the entire day with you.  They may want to visit a friend. Children need the support and security of hanging out with their friends.

Activities for Children

Many families have found that creating a special activity for the children to participate in can be meaningful and comforting to them.  Although adults can have input and give guidance, the children should decide what they would like to do.

Some suggestions that have proven helpful to others are:

  • Have the child help bake cookies for a nursing home or group that had meaning to the deceased.
  • With the above, or if you want to donate money to a charity, have the child write a note explaining that the gift is a memorial and add something personal about the deceased.
  • Plant a tree in the backyard.
  • Have the children write a note, draw a picture, or make a small gift for the deceased. Then take it to the cemetery and bury it in a small hole at the grave, or let it float away in a river, lake or ocean.