How to Navigate the Holidays When You're Grieving

For those mourning the loss of a loved one, holiday baubles, bells, and bright lights can feel anything but joyful. Here are five tips to help those grieving a death cope with the holidays.

Unlock the Door to New Traditions

photo of a sad woman with a lit Christmas tree in the background

JGI / Jamie Grill / Getty Images

English novelist W. Somerset Maugham once said, "Tradition is a guide and not a jailer." Despite this, the holiday traditions we form over many years with a spouse, child, parent or other significant loved one can often feel just as inescapable as the bars of a prison. Sending out Christmas cards, baking that special holiday dessert, shopping on Black Friday, participating in the neighborhood lights/decorations contest, etc., might be interwoven with your happiest holiday memories, but will your particular tradition really bring you joy this year? If not, consider changing it so you feel more comfortable.

Remember, you can always resume your original tradition down the road if you'd like, but you might discover that a new tradition is just as satisfying.

It's O.K. to Say No

Every year, your family looks forward to coming to your house on Christmas Eve for carols and cocoa. But this year, the thought of decorating the house and trimming the tree all by yourself feels overwhelming. Or perhaps you've organized the holiday music pageant at your church or community center for the past several seasons, but now, your heart just isn't in it. While the thought of altering your holiday routine might feel difficult, you need to determine how much responsibility you feel comfortable taking on and then clearly communicate that to your family and friends. Ask yourself if you just want help with a particular task or if you'd prefer someone else take it on entirely this year. Remind yourself that it's okay to say "no" as you adjust to life after loss.

Nothing's Perfect and Neither Are You

Most of us carry a mental picture of what the holidays "should" be like. Books, magazines, movies, television commercials and even our childhood memories can fuel this idealization by creating an image of what a "perfect" Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa, [insert holiday here] looks like. This can create a lot of pressure, which is another source of stress you don't need to deal with right now. Therefore, give yourself a pass this holiday season by accepting things as they are. Maybe you didn't spend as much time wrapping those gifts for the kids as you usually do, but when was the last time a child refused a gift because of the wrap job? Turkey a little dry this year? Add a little more gravy. Whatever comes up, repeat to yourself: "Just let it go."

Honor Your Departed Loved One

Often, those mourning a death wonder, "How can I avoid thinking about them during the holidays?" The truth is, you can't entirely, so why even try? Instead of living in fear that you'll start remembering your loved one and feeling sad, empower yourself by incorporating their memory into your plans. When you're with your family, light a candle in your loved one's honor that can quietly signify his or her presence in your hearts. Or make some popcorn and sit down together as a family to watch their favorite holiday movie. If you're the creative type, make special holiday ornaments with your children or grandchildren and hang them in a place of honor on your Christmas tree. If you feel up to it, ask your family to share their favorite memories of your loved one, or visit the cemetery, memorial site or a place significant in the life of your loved one together.

Discover the True Joy of Giving

We always hear that giving is better than receiving, but how many of us really believe that? Well, consider this the holiday when you will put that old chestnut to the test by helping someone else cope with the holiday blues in some small way. Donate toys for children or warm clothing to the homeless. Help feed the hungry or support seniors. Adopt a needy family or make a charitable contribution in memory of your loved one. There are many opportunities to discover the joy of giving if you look. For a list of opportunities to help someone else experience a brighter holiday in your area, please visit the Volunteer Match website.

Was this page helpful?