Grief and the Holidays: You Don’t Have to Face it Alone

Grief during the holidays

Celebrating the holidays without a loved one can be a challenge– potentially taking the joy out of a normally happy time. How can you honor their memory while still enjoying the holidays? We have tips from experts on how to cope, as well as additional support services to reinforce that you don’t have to face your grief alone.

When you lose a loved one you once celebrated with, the holidays can be a time of grief and sadness. Traditions you once treasured can be difficult to continue.

While everyone grieves in different ways and on different timelines, it is possible to cope during the holidays — and perhaps even enjoy the time, though certainly in a different way than before.

Keep in mind that it is difficult to make grief disappear during celebrations. “Remember that you are grieving, holiday or not,” says Judy Primm-Shimahara, MFT, outpatient therapist at Renown Behavioral Health. “You will feel joy, pain and bittersweet memories. Let them come.”

Honor Their Memory

Consider starting a new tradition that your loved one would have enjoyed, do something generous for another person, plant a tree or light a candle in their memory. “Think about honoring them with something symbolic,” Shimahara says.

Consider volunteer work, adds Father Karry Crites, Renown Hospice Care bereavement coordinator. Working at a food kitchen, spending time with someone who does not have family or donating a gift or money are nice ways to give back during the holiday season.

Share Your Stories

Another great way to remember someone is by sharing a favorite or funny story from a previous holiday. “Sharing stories is a good idea, especially when people laugh,” Shimahara explains. “Remember that feeling joy isn’t a betrayal of the lost one.”

Make a Plan B

Shimahara says it’s 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.”

Some resources even recommend having a “Plan B” ahead of the holidays. Plan A could include spending time with family and friends while Plan B provides you with a backup option allowing you to focus on your grief, such as skipping a family tradition in order to watch a movie or look through an old photo album.

Break from Tradition if Needed

If thinking about your family traditions is too much, it may be best to change course this year. “Some families choose to do something completely different, especially in the early years,” Shimahara says. “Go on a vacation, a cruise or to an amusement park.” Shimahara says a mix of old and new is a good approach. You should sit down with your family and talk about the choices and agree on your plans beforehand.

Accepting help from others or limiting activities is also a good way to manage expectations during the holidays. For example, baking and cleaning can be enjoyable chores, but if it’s too much to get through, ask for help or buy baked goods instead. Other holiday tasks such as shopping, getting a tree, decorating and sending cards can take a lot of energy. Decide what you would really enjoy and ask friends, family or neighbors to help.

Plan Ahead

You may seek to avoid gatherings because you are afraid you are going to “breakdown” and spoil the other’s holiday. In reality, family/friends often feel worse by your absence and concern for you being alone, Crites says.

“Comforting each other is an important ingredient in the grief process,” he says. “If you plan to go to a holiday event at a family member or friend’s home, prearrange with them a location, such as a bedroom, where you can go if you need to have some privacy. If a situation looks especially difficult over the holidays, it is OK to cancel your plans.

Helping Children With Grief

If you have or are close with children who have lost a loved one, it’s important to consider how they grieve. Children at different ages and developmental stages respond to loss differently. Also, keep their feelings in mind if they are looking forward to celebrating the holidays.

“The best thing parents can do is be available to listen, talk or just sit with the child,” Shimahara says. “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 and to work with your child to establish new traditions, if they are ready and willing.

Reach Out to Others

If you do not have many friends or family members locally, seek out a group or other individuals, such as a neighbor or church member who you could spend time with. There are also many many support groups, classes and events around the holidays.

Renown Hospice Care offers a free grief support group. The group meets the first and third Tuesday of every month from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the Sparks Senior Center, and the first and third Wednesday of every month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Reno Senior Center. Call 775-982-2817 or email

If you need additional assistance, Renown Behavioral Health offers therapy and additional support groups. Learn more online.