Twelve Tips For Getting Through the Holidays After Loss

Why write about loss and grief during the holidays? Nobody wants to talk or even think about grief this time of year. The focus should be on the festivities and good times, right? I think I’ve even been putting this post off. But since the holidays are upon us, I better get on with what I want to say before they’ve come and gone.

While it’s true, talking about loss and grief is always difficult; it can be even tougher this time of year. However the reality is that death and grief do happen, even during the holidays. All one has to do is turn on the news to know there is no reprieve from bad things happening this month. Illness and accidents still happen. Diseases continue to be diagnosed and treatments carry on. Lives begin and end in December too.

If you have recently experienced a loss, (or even not that recently), the holidays can be truly daunting as you wonder how you will maneuver your way through them without falling apart or spoiling everyone else’s good times. You might even have started dreading the holidays as the first leaves started to drop off early last fall. The period from September right down to the end of the year can be very difficult for some. Add to that, the seasonal change of lessening daylight hours and more darkness, perhaps it’s no wonder this period can be the most difficult of all for the recently (or not so recently) bereaved. The holidays may also unexpectedly trigger memories of losses experienced years ago.

Sometimes the anticipation of the holidays (or any special occasion) can be worse than the actual days themselves. Not knowing how one will react to them, or expecting the worst, can cause extreme sadness, anxiety or dread.

Three years ago my family received the devastating news that my mother’s cancer had metastasized to her liver. In fact, we received this news on Christmas Eve day. For me, that was the most difficult Christmas. Each Christmas that has followed has been very different than the ones preceding her death. My mother’s Christmases were events she planned the entire rest of the year. They were actual productions, filled with more decorating, baking, cooking, eating, shopping, gift giving and visiting than anyone else’s I’ve ever witnessed. Learning how to celebrate the holidays without her took some doing. We are still trying to figure it out.

 I’ve been thinking about my list of tips for getting through the holidays after loss and here it is. 

  1.   The main thing to remember is just like everyone grieves differently, how you feel about the holidays will also be as individual as you are. They might not even BE difficult for you. Sometimes ordinary days are hardest, not holidays.

 2.   Perhaps most importantly, acknowledge that the upcoming days or weeks might be really hard. Stating that out loud, even to just yourself, validates it somehow making it more OK to accept your own feelings.

  3.  Decide what you want to do this year. Do you want to continue traditions or do you want to begin new ones? Or perhaps a combo?       

 4.   Do something specific for your loved one. Some people like to light a candle, display a particular ornament in a special place each year, make a donation in their loved one’s name or volunteer someplace the loved one would have chosen or cared about.

  5.  Talk about your loved one by sharing memories and stories about them, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Remembering honors them and keeps them with you in a very real sense.

  6.  Set realistic expectations for yourself. If you don’t feel like doing cards, don’t. If you don’t feel like baking, don’t. If your house isn’t the cleanest, so what?

  7.  Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep and eating properly. Remember grieving is taxing physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s just plain hard work and it really does tire you out.

  8.  Try to exercise every day. The benefits are pretty obvious, but worth saying anyway. Exercise relieves stress, helps deter depression and improves your self-esteem.

  9.  I’ll borrow a quote from a friend’s recent blog post if I may, (which came from Oprah originally) “Surround yourself with only the people who are going to lift you up.” No need to say more.

10.  If you need help, ask for it. If you can’t manage with daily chores, shopping or whatever it might be, it’s alright to ask someone to help you.

11.  There is now an actual clinical term called “complicated grief.” Kind of a silly name in my opinion, because all grief is complicated. Simply put, it means there is no diminishing of your grief with time. You can’t stop mourning or begin to move on. If you are experiencing this, you probably need professional help. Ask for it. You can find more information on this topic at Mayo Clinic’s website.

12.  Remember most people eventually enjoy the holidays again. Hang on to that hope. You will get there. Also, experiencing a few nostalgic or sad moments is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of life after loss.

This list is in no way complete, but thinking about these suggestions may perhaps be helpful to some. I hope so. I’m curious about what has been helpful for others, so I hope you’ll consider sharing a comment or suggestion.

As Christmas rapidly approaches at my house, excitement builds even with “grown-up children.” Memories abound, some painful, but most of them wonderful. My house, too, is probably “overdone” with decorations, most of them gifts I received from my mother through the years. The ornament featured in the photo seems to tie in perfectly for this post. It’s a bit nostalgic, pictures a child eagerly waiting for Santa and it’s a gift from; you guessed it, my mother.

What do you do during the holidays, or any day, to remember loved ones no longer with you? What are your suggestions for helping the bereaved get through the holiday season?

32 comments


  • Rose Mary Saraiva

    December 20, 2010

    Nancy,

    This post is to the point, and yes it does not cover all possible suggestions, but you have a great big part of the iceberg.

    As you know, my daughter died 4 years ago, and the holidays can and are very difficult times for me. Rachel loved anything to do with celebrations, family and friends, and the holidays were no exception. As a mother, I find myself donating to others in need in her name, I hang her stocking filled with candy and small toys for the children in our family, and the ornaments bearing her name get a prominent place on the tree.

    The most important thing for me is sharing Rachel with others, telling her story, and all she loved and believed in.

    Your loved one is and always will be a very important person in your life. They may no longer be present, but the love is very much alive.

    Cherish the legacy they left you, and live your life as they would want you to. If you need to cry, by all means grab that box of tissues, and let them flow. I quoted a 4-year old once, whose advice was the best I could ask for, ‘crying makes the hurt go away…’

    Wishing you a blessed Christmas, filled with love, laughter and joy.

    Rose Mary xoxoxo

    • Nancy

      December 20, 2010

      Rose Mary, Thanks for your input on this topic that you are all too familiar with. I’m glad you have found some things to do in Rachel’s memory that bring you some peace. Wishing you a blessed Christmas as well.

    • Alli

      December 23, 2010

      Since my mother has been gone our holidays have changed so much over the course of years. My mom loved Chinese Food, especially a place called the Mandarin. They have a great buffet. For the first few years we would all bundle up meet at the Mandarin have a great night leave stuffed like a fat cabbage lol. Now we can never find time. Some are going here others another place and my step-dad has changed his religion so he no longer celebrates.. I miss those family days. MY bio dad has been gone one year on the 21st of DEC. Again we start the first without him…

      • Nancy

        December 23, 2010

        Alli, Thanks for reading and taking time to share your thoughts at this busy time of year. It’s nice you have those memories of your mom and special family times. Sorry to hear about the recent loss of your bio dad. This holdiay season without him now, too, must feel so different for you. I hope you have a happy holiday, despite the fact it will not be quite the same.

  • mysisterdalesgarden

    December 21, 2010

    I try not to dwell on my sister’s passing. When my sister passed away from Lung Cancer I started a memorial garden in her honor. That garden has grown into a magical, peaceful place. What started with a Peach Tree has now developed into a tropical showcase. The garden shows that there is beauty after death. I have taken over 5000 pictures of the flowers, fruit, trees and vegetables. I post them daily on my website. Please read the comments from people who have been touched by the garden’s beauty and the message. http://www.mysisterdalesgarden.com you will find the most recent photos and comments in photo gallery 1

    • Nancy

      December 21, 2010

      dalesgarden, Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. I’m sorry for the loss of your sister. In her memory you have created something lovely that also helps others.

  • Cheryl Radford

    December 21, 2010

    Nancy, I am so sorry for the loss of your Mother and, in particular, the time that you received the news. I lost my Mother to endometrial cancer less than one month before Jeremy’s accident.
    These years Christmas is difficult as my family tradition has always been to make the favourite Christmas cake to be posted in time for Christmas eating. There were also the ceramic Christmas ornaments for the tree. One for each grandchild with the idea they would be taken with the children when they left home and made their own way in life. This year I had to get the services of a scribe to write on Christmas cards. I am having to find new ways of creating traditions within the family.
    Thinking of you.

    • Nancy

      December 21, 2010

      Chez, Thanks for commenting so kindly, Chez. Again I want to say how sorry I am for your tragic back-to-back losses. It is hard to change old traditions sometimes, but we also must adapt I guess. I’m glad you found someone to write your cards. Take care.

  • Stacey

    December 21, 2010

    Hi Nancy, my issue with the holidays is thinking how much my mom would have loved to share it with her grandchildren. I’m sad my boys will never get to experience that, but I talk about her and I’m trying to give the boys a good sense of who she was. It’s hard, they’re still young, but I like to talk about her.

    Funny, it’s not the holidays so much that bother me, but occasionally even 10 years later, it’s the ordinary stuff; walking through a mall, driving somewhere, different things set if off, but it feels like a punch coming from nowhere and I’ll wallow for a bit.

    Thanks for the post. I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your family!

    • Nancy

      December 21, 2010

      Stacey, I’m sure it does make you sad thinking of your boys growing up never knowing your mom “first hand.” However, they will still come to know her from all the stories and memories you share with them about her, even more so as they get older. I agree, ordinary stuff is often what I miss most too.

  • Brenda Ray Coffee

    December 21, 2010

    Nancy,
    Sometimes I think I have “yo-yo” grief: One day, I’m positive, happy and looking forward to the future, and the next day, the simplest of things make me wonder whether my breast cancer will return. Like all of us, the death of Elizabeth Edwards hasn’t helped my frame of mind. I’ve never been a negative, glass half-empty person, so I’ve been reviewing some of the possible culprits that have contributed to my yo-yo state of mind.

    This Fall’s cumulative, non-stop breast cancer awareness events have stopped. That’s a good thing. I need a break. “Hell Month,” is what the BC veteran organizations call it, and they’re right, except they didn’t tell me it lasts through November as well.

    I’ve decided not to attend another breast cancer symposium. That’s a good thing as well. They’re depressing, plus I sometimes wonder if it’s possible to know “too much” about breast cancer. There’s a lot of info from the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium I wish I hadn’t heard, because I was much more optimistic about my own chance of recurrence before I attended.

    My New Year’s resolutions are to up my trust in God a huge notch; stop being a news junkie and to return to my core mission statement of empowering breast cancer families with Survivorship skills. Actually, I’m feeling better already:)

    Merry Christmas, sweet lady,
    Brenda

    • Nancy

      December 21, 2010

      Brenda, It sounds to me like you do need a break from all the advocating and information gathering you do on behalf of all of us. Also, I agree the death of Elizabeth Edwards rattled us all. Take some time to slow down over the holidays and tend to yourself. Sounds like you have a couple of good resolutions in mind there. Merry Christmas to you as well, Brenda.

  • Lindsay

    December 24, 2010

    It’s important to take the time to share memories of the person. Here’s one of mine:

    When I was spending my first Christmas away from our family because of my job at the time, my grandma mailed me this HUGE box of every single kind of cookie you can imagine, all the cookies she normally makes but was unable to share with me at her house. She mailed chocolate star cookies, sugar cookies, krumkake, rosettes, fudge, caramels, gingerbread cookies, spritz and probably a few other kinds I’m forgetting. She made me feel extra special even though I was unable to visit her on Christmas. She also mailed a toy for my kitten which he still has and still plays with five years later.

    That’s just one of the MANY things she did for me.

    • Nancy

      December 24, 2010

      Lindsay, What a wonderful memory to share, thank you!!!

  • Lindsay

    December 24, 2010

    Yep, I forgot the peanut butter balls and the peanut clusters. She mailed those as well :)

    • Nancy

      December 24, 2010

      Lindsay, Too tasty to forget!! Yum!

  • Lindsay

    December 24, 2010

    AND chocolate covered pretzels.

    • Nancy

      December 24, 2010

      LIndsay, Just wondering, did they manage to arrive unbroken?? She loved doing all that for a special granddaughter!

  • Lindsay

    December 26, 2010

    Yep, very few, if any, were broken. They were in Tupperware containers with foil around them so they were fresh. And then she had bubblewrap around the containers, I think.

    • Nancy

      December 26, 2010

      Lindsay,
      Amazing, the love and effort put into that!

  • Susan Zager

    December 15, 2012

    Last year my best friend started hospice for MBC and having it in her liver was so sad. She was so brave about it, but her tummy was filled with water and we ordered pregnant women’s clothes to make her more comfortable. Luckily we had a special Christmas as her caretaker helped her make a day for out of us to gather around her table. She was so happy that day. I am so sorry about your mother and I appreciate the way your beautifully written post reminded me of the bittersweet holiday time.

    • Nancy

      December 19, 2012

      Susan, I know you really were there for your friend. I’ve read your posts about that. I’m so sorry for your loss. You have her little dog now, right? How wonderful that you took her beloved pet. Thanks so much for your kind words about my mother. And thanks for reading my posts and taking time to comment. It means a lot.

  • Bert

    November 6, 2013

    I have to say that I’m having a very difficult time as this holiday season approaches. I lost my mom in november 2011, my 22 year old son in december 2011 and my dad in july 2012. I have three younger brothers that i’m not very close too at all. I had a second family that I love very much. This family was my girlfriend, her three daughters, her mother and nine grandkids. I considered them my own family. Well after seven years our relationship ended a couple months ago. I feel completely devastated. The only thing that keeps me going is my relationship with the girls and the grandkids. I just don’t know what i’m going to do for thanksgiving and christmas. I will not be tbetr with the family. I’m afraid to be alone.

    • Nancy

      November 6, 2013

      Bert, I’m very sorry about all your losses. You’ve had far too many and your feelings are understandable. I’m sorry you are feeling so devastated. Give yourself time to heal emotionally. I hope you can find someone to speak with about your losses. You don’t have to be alone, not completely. Perhaps reaching out to your brothers is an option to reconsider now… Or volunteering somewhere to help others who are alone. I hope you find some healing.

  • Catherine

    November 7, 2013

    Hi Nancy,

    I stumbled across this post while trying to find books and articles on how to get through the holidays following a loss. Thank you so much for the helpful tips and validation.

    My husband and I lost our daughter Marianne in late August when I was 5 months pregnant. Her estimated due date was Christmas day. Holidays are going to be tough this year, to say the least.

    What makes the situation even more complex is that my mother has an aggressive (and malignant) brain tumour; she has thankfully outlived her prognosis by over 3 years, but we still don’t really know what will happen from one year to the next. She really enjoys the holidays and is trying to be joyful and encouraging despite us all still trying to process this grief. I’m trying my best to be strong but I’m still full of dread. At least I am surrounded by much love and support…

    Once again, thank you for your help on this complex journey of healing.

    • Nancy

      November 7, 2013

      Catherine, I’m very sorry for the loss of your sweet daughter. That is such a blow to deal with… You have to be extra gentle with yourself this holiday season. Your loss is still so raw. Perhaps having a special ornament or two with her name on it might be comforting. Don’t be afraid to feel sad or attempt to cover up your grief. And yes, it’s wonderful that you’re surrounded by love and support, but still it won’t be easy. I’ll be thinking of you. Thanks for stumbling upon my post. I have a few more grief/loss posts too in case you’re interested.

  • Katie Burt

    November 17, 2013

    Hi
    My four year daughter Hana passed away April 3 2012. So it our second christmas without her. Last christmas was really hard and we didn’t go to any family party’s. I bought gifts for her and filled her stocking any way. Going into this holiday I’m wondering how to honor her memory without over doing it. A way to say we still love her and miss her

    • Nancy

      November 18, 2013

      Katie, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure last Christmas was really rough. It’s lovely that you filled her stocking and bought little gifts. I see no reason why you couldn’t do that again if you’d like. Or how about doing it before the holidays and then giving them away to a child in need of the same age your Hana would be? This could be done every year. Or how about having a special tree somewhere in your house for which you buy a special ornament each year. It would be Hana’s tree. Of course, only you know what feels right in your heart for you to do. Be kind to yourself. The loss lasts a lifetime. Honor your grief by feeling it.

  • ron

    December 22, 2013

    I lost partner on oct 42012 holidays are so rough on me I feel so sad and lonely even though I have great family

    • Nancy

      December 23, 2013

      Ron, I’m very sorry for your loss. Your grief is fresh and raw, so please be gentle with yourself and your emotions. I’m sure your family will understand how tough the holidays will be for you. Again, I’m sorry.

  • Ed SantaBarbara

    December 23, 2013

    What can I do to help my girlfriend during the holidays.This is the first Christmas she will not be alive.She is very sad.how can I help????

    • Nancy

      December 23, 2013

      Ed, I’m not understanding your question. So sorry. Who is not alive this Christmas?

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