How to Hold Grief Through the Holidays
When you’re missing someone you love, you rarely feel the loss quite as sharply as during the holidays. I haven’t had a close family member die, but I’ve had to grieve the end of several treasured relationships. And I’ve walked beside people I love through their own grief.
I know the holidays can be brutal.
If you or someone you love is in that place this year, here are a few insights I’ve gained from my own experiences and from some courageous, gracious friends who’ve shared theirs with me.
1. Treat yourself with extra care.
“Grieving and healing are work and they take time and energy. There is no standard timeline for the heart.” – Beth
For my friend Beth, the first Christmas without her dad was also the first Christmas without her oldest child at home—and the first Christmas in a new state, miles from her closest friends. Beth loves creating beautiful experiences for her family, but that year was filled with grief. “My husband ended up buying most of the gifts. I probably wrapped them, but I don’t remember. I did bake cookies with my sister-in-law, but mostly I just went through the motions of everyday life.”
For some of us, grieving might mean letting go of typical holiday tasks. It might mean needing extra support. It might even mean going through the motions. For my friend Becky, grieving meant getting outside and into the snow. “It heightened my sense of being alive and made me think of my dad. He loved the woods.”
Whatever grief looks like for you, the holidays will probably take more energy than usual—so build in space to take good care of yourself.
2. Have grace. For yourself and everyone else.
“It’s hard on everybody and everybody handles it differently.” – Tawnya
Losing a family member can change an entire family dynamic. The hole will be real. Roles may shift. Emotions may flare. Things will feel wobbly. This is all normal. It may take a few seasons for the holidays to gain a new sense of normal. In the meantime, have as much patience and understanding as possible—for yourself, and for each person involved. The grieving process will look different for everyone.
“Everyone has a different way of grieving and a different timetable,” says Becky, “because each person has a unique relationship with the one we are missing.”
3. Mark the loss.
“I wrote my dad a letter on Christmas Eve while sipping a scotch—his favorite drink.” – Becky
The year Becky lost her father, she sat at the family’s holiday gathering and realized it would never be the same again. “There was no way to fill that space,” she says. It became important to acknowledge the loss.
“Our big family gathering was about remembering him and the ways he made Christmas special for us all,” she says. “I made sure to say his name out loud, and to say how much I missed him. At dinner we lit a candle in his memory.”
Small rituals and intentional conversation can be an important way to remember a loved one and honor your grief.
4. Keep some traditions.
“It’s been sweet to continue something Papa really loved.” – Emily
For Emily’s dad, Christmas dinner was one of the highlights of the day. He always requested “Dagwood sandwiches”—hoagies piled high with meats, cheeses, relishes, and toppings. Keeping this tradition alive has been one way the family remembers him. They even continue to include pumpernickel bread in the sandwich options, even though Papa was the only one who ever really liked it.
Doing the things that delighted your loved one can be a special way to keep their memories alive.
5. And start some new ones.
“I decided we would mark this loss by doing something differently each year—instead of trying to keep everything the same.” – Tawnya
If there was ever a mother who went all out for the holidays, it was Tawnya’s. Every December she created a Christmas wonderland, especially for her grandkids. “For the first year after she died, my sisters and I tried to keep some semblance of normal, doing it like my mom would have done it,” she says. But quickly they realized they couldn’t manage everything she had done.
As the years went on, the traditions began to shift. Christmas morning moved from her parents’ house to Tawnya’s. There were fewer presents under the tree. But many of her mom’s traditions remain. Fifteen years later, Tawnya always makes some of her mom’s favorite dishes, like ice cream pumpkin pie. “It’s not even anyone’s favorite to eat,” says Tawnya. “But we like to have it there.”
6. Protect your heart.
Sometimes when grief is fresh, old traditions or new ones (or anything else out there in the world) can feel like a minefield. I’ve gone through a couple painful breakups and it’s sometimes taken a year or more before I can listen to pop radio again. I am just too easily moved by music, and there are too many triggers in the lyrics. I know this about myself, so I protect my heart by sticking with talk radio during those seasons. It’s okay to avoid triggers while you’re grieving. If the rest of the family wants to continue with a holiday tradition that feels too painful for you, graciously opt out and do something soothing instead.
7. Be proactive.
“If I could go back and encourage myself through that first year, I’d say that the holidays will be hard, so make plans you can look forward to. Invite friends over, and stay busy!” – Molly
When Molly’s husband lost his battle with cancer, both of her sons had already moved three states away, to the mountains of Utah. So her first holiday without her husband was spent without her sons too. But she knew she’d be heading out to ski with them after Christmas, and the anticipation carried her through. That, and the other friends and family in her life.
There’s no getting around the sadness—but making a point to be with the people you love (or people you’re just getting to know, or other people who are lonely, or any people at all!) can help. Planning special outings or events can too. (Maybe this is the year for that tropical New Year’s cruise?)
8. Give yourself time.
“Grief is a journey not a destination. I use the analogy of it being like an ocean current. Sometimes I tread water, sometimes I swim, and sometimes I sink down and have to find ways to breathe under water.” –Becky
My therapist once told me that for each day I continued to walk through my grief, I was getting closer to feeling “better”. Every single day, every single holiday, brings you closer to your new normal. Closer to healing. Grief may continue to come in waves, but you are never walking backwards. It will never be as hard as it was at first. The waves will eventually become fewer and further between.
“It does get better,” says Emily. “The second holiday was not as hard as the first.”
For each of us, however, the timing can be different. So be gentle and patient with yourself. Try not to judge where you are in the process or how you’re feeling. Just know that the grief will subside, more and more over time.
9. Look for the joy.
“This raw and vulnerable state also opens you to beauty.” – Beth
For many families, it’s the youngest children who keep the magic in the holiday. As Becky puts it, “The kiddos brought a beautiful piece to us of being able to see life in the midst of the death we were all holding.”
Beth’s two youngest sons brought a similar kind of joy, and she wanted to hold onto that all year long. Inspired by the movie Collateral Beauty, she now looks for moments of beauty throughout the holidays—and every day. She posts them to social media, almost as a spiritual practice. “It is my acknowledgment that life is beautiful, not despite the pain, but alongside the pain,” she says.
Every year when the carolers sing about the most wonderful time of the year, an alternate line is playing in my head because I know that, sometimes, for some of us, it’s actually the most challenging time of the year. Or the most painful.
If you’re grieving a loss this holiday season, know that you’re not alone, friends. And if there is something that has helped you or your loved ones grieve through the holidays, please share it in the comments below!
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who has almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net.