How can I celebrate the holidays with my family when I am grieving?

Mental Health

It is complicated, but know that you are not alone. Many people find this time of the year difficult, especially so when they are facing the death or loss of a loved one. The holidays can bring up feelings of sadness, loss around the rituals you had, and isolation as other people may not understand how you feel. Even if your loss was not recent, it is still OK for you to feel this way.

Here are some strategies that you can put in place to help move through this difficult time.

1. Feel what you feel.

You don’t need to pretend to be happy or any way that people expect you to be. It is normal to feel sad when you lose a loved one. You don’t have to hide how you feel either. You can use simple language to talk to children about how you feel, for example, “I feel sad today because I miss drinking coffee with your grandmother.” If someone invites you to an event and it feels like too much, you can say, “I would love to come, but I am having a hard time today and am going to do something else that will help me get through the day. I appreciate the invitation.” Death is a normal part of all of our lives. And it is possible to feel little bits of joy, even when you are sad.

2. Do only the things that you want to do.

Don’t feel obligated to do things that are stressful like going out shopping or going to a large family gathering. Do the things that seem easiest for you. At the same time, some activities can be a good distraction and bring up positive memories of your loved one.

3. Focus on meeting your own (and your family’s) needs.

If you have children or other members of your family who are struggling, talk to them about what things they want to do this holiday season. Let them know that even though it is hard for you right now, you still want to do some things together. If you can’t, explain to them simply why you can’t and how you hope to be able to next year. Let people know that you want them to enjoy the holidays. Take a more passive role and allow people to enjoy while not being at the center of it. For example, if the family is going to a movie or event, maybe you can join for some part of it, but not parts that seem more challenging like the gathering afterwards.

4. Plan things that bring you joy.

Make sure to do things that are helpful to you. Perhaps it is taking time to read a good book, go for a nice walk, or just talk to someone on the phone. If you can build these things into the season, you can look forward to these opportunities for joy, even in the midst of sadness.

5. Help others and give if you can.

Helping others also helps us. If you can do something to honor your loved one and give, like volunteer at a pet shelter if they loved animals, that is great. If you can’t make the time or make a donation somewhere, maybe you can do a week of small acts of kindness. Or maybe you can reach out to someone who may not have family or friends to talk to them. Not only can this help someone else, but it can help you to improve your mood and well-being.

6. Create new traditions.

Many times we get stuck in the traditions of the past. These can bring up many memories of our loved ones. By making new traditions and experiences, you can create new memories and ways of doing things that won’t be painful reminders. They will be different than they were before, but this can lead to new rituals, new memories, and even some positive emotions associated with them.

7. Continue to honor your loved one.

If your loss is recent, this may be difficult. Any memory can be painful and most of us will have difficulty doing this. For some of us, keeping our loved ones’ favorite foods, songs, or activities incorporated into our routines can bring us joy. Different family members may want to do this in different ways. Know that what feels right for you is the best way to honor or remember someone. If someone has an idea that doesn’t feel good to you, it is OK to say that you don’t want to do it this year, but could consider another year.

These are just a few ideas to help you move through the season. Grief is a difficult emotion and one that doesn’t just go away, no matter how far away in time from your loss you are. When we can recognize it and integrate it into our lives, we can have a much richer experience. Grief is often described like an ocean tide, it comes in and out. When we are ready and aware that it can come back in, we can be prepared to face it, whether it is around the holidays or not.

The bottom line: This can be a difficult time of year for those of us who are grieving. You may not be feeling all the spirit of the season. And that’s OK. There are things that you can do to help, but we can’t make grief go away, only learn how to move with it.

Stay safe. Stay well.

Those Nerdy Girls


Additional Resources:

AARP 9 tips for dealing with grief