Celebrating the holidays without a loved one challenging – potentially taking the joy out of a normally happy time. How can you honor their memory while still enjoying the holidays? We have expert tips on how to cope, as well as additional support services, so you don’t have to face grief alone.
The holidays are a cheerful time filled with family and friends, but for those who have lost a loved one, they can be a time of grief and sadness. It can be difficult to move forward with the holiday traditions you once enjoyed — like making cookies with your grandmother or decorating the tree with your dad.
How to handle grief during the holidays
While everyone has a different timeline for grieving and grieves in different ways, it is possible to cope during the holidays. With this in mind, perhaps you may even enjoy the time, though certainly in a different way than before.
First, keep in mind it is difficult to make grief disappear during celebrations. “Remember that you are grieving, holiday or not,” reminds Judy Primm-Shimahara, M.F.T., outpatient therapist at Stacie Mathewson Behavioral Health & Addiction Institute at Renown. “You will feel joy, pain and bittersweet memories. Let them come.”
What do you do if you lose a loved one?
You can honor your loved one’s memory in different ways, looking back fondly on memories without letting the grief overtake your holidays. “Think about honoring them with something symbolic,” suggests Primm-Shimahara. For example, you can start a new tradition they would have enjoyed, do a good deed for someone else or plant a tree or light a candle in their memory.
Another way of remembering a loved one is by sharing a favorite or funny story from previous holidays about them. “Sharing stories is a good idea, especially when people can laugh,” says Primm-Shimahara. “Remember that feeling joy isn’t a betrayal of the lost one.”
Do you have a backup plan?
It’s also important to allow for both celebrations and grief. “Plan with your family and friends and allow time to include both happiness and grief, as you will feel both,” Primm-Shimahara advises.
Some resources even recommend having a “Plan B” before the holidays. Plan A is spending the holidays with family and friends; plan B provides a backup option allowing you to focus more on your grief. This may include skipping the family celebration in order to watch a movie you both liked or looking through a photo album.
Are breaks from tradition okay?
Thinking about past family traditions may be too much, so it may be best to change your course. “Some families choose to do something completely different, especially in the early years,” Primm-Shimahara explains. “Go on a vacation, a cruise or to an amusement park. Mixing old and new is a good approach.” Keep in mind sitting down together and talking family holiday choices beforehand is a good idea.
Is it okay to cancel?
Still not feeling up for the holidays? It’s okay to cancel your plans. “Don’t be forced into doing something because you ‘should’. There’s always next year,” explains Primm-Shimahara. “If someone’s heart is heavy during a celebration, the hearts of others won’t be light.”
How to help kids with grief
When you are grieving, it can be hard to remember your loved ones are, too. Your kids are likely feeling your loss, so it is important to learn how kids at different ages and developmental stages respond to loss.
“The best thing parents can do is be available to listen, talk or just sit with the child,” Primm-Shimahara recommends. “At the holidays specifically, reinforce feelings of both sadness and joy, and encourage memories.” She also encourages children to spend time with other kids who have experienced loss. It’s also helpful to work with your child to establish new traditions, if they are ready and willing.
Should you reach out to others?
If you see a friend or loved one struggling with loss during the holidays, you can reach out to help. “Friends or family members who are grieving are most helped by knowing someone is there to support them,” says Primm-Shimahara. She suggests offering to help with errands and chores, wrapping presents or taking them out to coffee to sit and listen. Simply ask them what they need and how you can help.
Regardless of how you experience grief, it is a personal journey with no two people handling it the same. Remember to be gentle to yourself — during the holidays and throughout your time of grieving.