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 death. At a time when everyone is supposed to be happy and enjoying themselves, the bereaved can feel sad, lonely, and depressed. Holidays do not necessarily have to be entirely sad.

Here are ways to help you cope with your grief during this time:


Plan Ahead

Bereaved individuals who experience the most difficulty with holidays are those who have given little thought to the challenges they will encounter. Many who are grieving feel 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 than you anticipated.


Take 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 well-being. If you are not presently exercising, don't overdo it. Excessive use of drugs or alcohol will only postpone the painful feelings, not eliminate them.

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. 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, some normal responses are commonly experienced by most bereaved people:



Stomach distress Chest pain Difficulty sleeping
Difficulty breathing Change in bowel pattern Over-activity
Muscle weakness Change in eating habits Skin rash
Dry mouth Lack of energy  
Headache Nervousness  



Shock Anger Fear
Disbelief Anxiety Preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased
Sadness Crying
Loneliness Nightmares
Guilt Lack of concentration


Understand your Feelings

The holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations of happiness and joy. Accept that there will be times when you are sad and depressed. Give yourself permission to feel sad-you have every right. Whatever you do, allow yourself to cry when you feel a need to cry. Crying helps you both physically and emotionally. It has an effect similar to exercise in that it reduces stress and calms anxiety.

Also, give yourself permission to feel good, laugh, and even 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.


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. It will take time for you to adjust - maybe years.


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 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 at a different church or synagogue. Open gifts at a different time or location. Some holiday grievers even find 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 and determine if they combine or conflict with your family's needs. It is usually necessary to be somewhat flexible so a meaningful compromise can be worked out that will be helpful to everyone involved.

Memorialize your loved one in a way that is meaningful to you. Chosing an activity that your loved one would have approved of can make it even more meaningful. Activities for both families and individuals are appropriate.

Here are some suggestions:

  • 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 one 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.

Ralph L. Klicker