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Published on December 22, 2020

Navigating holidays after a loss

Holidays after a loss

The holiday season can be an especially difficult time for those who have suffered a significant loss of a loved one in the past year. For many of us, from a very young age, holidays have been defined by time spent visiting and enjoying the company of our loved ones. It would be natural for this time of year to focus and magnify the feelings of loss and grief that we thought we had “under control” after “so many months.”

Part of the way we can get through this is to understand the wide range of “normal” feelings that may occur. Realize that you are vulnerable at this time, and accept those who love you and are trying to help you through it. But also be honest with them about the best way to help you. Expect that the answers to how best to help may vary significantly from day to day (or even hour to hour). Don’t be surprised by changes in your mood that may be triggered unexpectedly, or by disruptions in your sleep or appetite. Cry if you feel tears coming; or you may even find yourself angry with the loved one no longer with you – both are OK. Exercise as much as possible, and confide and seek comfort from your friends and loved ones, and give them credit for trying to help. Recognize that nobody ever says just the right thing every time. 

If you are the loved one trying to support someone in their time of grief, some key thoughts are:

  • Talk less, listen more.
  • Ask how best you can help, and don’t try to force your “best idea for helping,” if it doesn’t fit.
  • Don’t avoid someone you know to be in pain because you don’t know what to say or how to help, as this can result in hurt feelings. Remember, everyone feels grief differently, and being told by others “it is time to move on” is likely not helpful, especially at the holidays.

As the holidays are often a time of decades-old traditions in families, one can expect that any tradition a lost loved one used to participate in will be difficult. Ignoring this can be a recipe for further upset. It may be helpful to acknowledge this and alter the tradition, to remember the person who is no longer present. You may want to set that place for them at the table, or you may find that makes pain worse. The answer varies, and either is fine.

Making your loved one’s favorite dish or dessert and using it to remember good times can help get family through. Remember to pay attention to the children who also see and feel loss but haven’t yet developed the ability to also appreciate a life well lived. A prayer, a candle, or a favorite story is also a way to bring your loved one back into the tradition and bring some comfort to those grieving. My father-in-law was a lifelong fan of Jack Daniels and a toast to him at dinner helps us to remember the good times we shared over the years.

Some families help cope by building a “memory book” of favorite remembrances. For those more computer savvy, there are opportunities to build online tributes and tell favorite stories. Sharing a movie or ride to a beach or other area that was a favorite may also be a way of bringing comfort to a difficult time.

On a different level, helping others in memory of our loved one may help bring meaning. Donating to a charity in memory of the person pays tribute. This may be a cash donation but could also be a warm coat or another favorite item. Donating food or time to a food kitchen or church in honor of your loved one can be a new tradition for a family.

One more important point to remember: You will get through this. Over time, you will come to a point where you are controlling and managing your grief more than it is controlling and managing you. It may not feel that way yet, but each month will eventually be easier than the last.