How to Handle Grief During the Holidays


Celebrating the holidays without a loved one can be a challenge – potentially taking the joy out a normally happy time. How can you honor their memory while still enjoying the holidays? We have tips from experts on how to cope.

For most people, the holidays are a happy time filled with family and friends; but for those who have lost a loved one they once celebrated with, they can be a time of grief and sadness. It can be difficult to move forward with the holiday traditions you once treasured — like making cookies with your grandmother or cutting down the tree with your dad.

woman grieving

Advice to Get You Through the Holidays

While everyone grieves in different ways and on different timetables, it is possible to cope during the holidays — and perhaps 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 Renown Behavioral Health. “You will feel joy, pain and bittersweet memories. Let them come.”

Honor Their Memory

You can honor your loved one’s memory in a number of different ways, looking back fondly on memories without letting the grief overtake your holidays. “Think about honoring them with something symbolic,” suggests Judy. For example, you can start a new tradition they would have enjoyed, do something generous for someone else or plant a tree or light a candle in their memory.

Share Your Stories

Another great way to remember someone who is no longer with you is by sharing a favorite or funny story from previous holidays with them. “Sharing stories is a good idea, especially when people can laugh,” says Judy. “Remember that feeling joy isn’t a betrayal of the lost one.”

Make a Plan B

Judy 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,” she advises.

Some resources even recommend having a “Plan B” ahead of the holidays. Plan A is spending the holidays with your family and friends; plan B provides you with a backup option allowing you to focus more on your grief – such as skipping the family celebration in order to watch a movie you both liked or look through an old photo album.

If Needed, Break From Tradition

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

It’s Okay to Cancel

If you still aren’t feeling up for the holidays, it is okay to cancel your plans. “Don’t be forced into doing something because you ‘should’. There’s always next year,” explains Judy. “If someone’s heart is heavy during a celebration, the hearts of others won’t be light.”

Help Your Kids with their Grief

When you’re grieving, it can be hard to remember your loved ones probably are, too. Your kids are likely feeling the loss just like you, so it’s 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,” Judy 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 and to work with your child to establish new traditions, if they are ready and willing.

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 Judy. 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 your grief, recognize that it’s a personal journey; no two people handle grief the same. And remember to be gentle to yourself — during the holidays and throughout your time of grieving.

If you need additional assistance, Renown Behavioral Health offers therapy and support groups. For more information, click here.