Coping with grief during the holidays after the death of a loved one

A woman lighting and releasing a paper lantern into the sky

Grief during the holidays is an all-to-common experience. If this is your first holiday season after the death of a loved one, you might be grappling with whether you should carry on traditions while grieving. And guess what? It’s perfectly normal and important to give yourself some grace.

Let yourself feel the way you feel

Feelings are facts. Everyone copes with loss in their own way. Your emotional responses to loss are valid and are part of your unique healing process. Don’t waste energy on feeling ashamed or guilty about your feelings; invest that energy in making concrete efforts to feel better and heal.

When should you consider mental health therapy?

Be open to adjusting your holiday traditions

The first holiday after the passing of a loved one is often the hardest, especially if the loss is unexpected.

When a loved one is lost, some families find comfort in the familiar and incorporate a time of remembrance into their holiday celebrations.

Others find the usual traditions too painful, especially if the loss occurred recently. If this is the case, it can be helpful to celebrate the holiday in an entirely different way and consider resuming traditions when you’re ready. You might find it helpful to change the location of a celebration and consider taking a trip or visiting a family member in a different city.

Some prefer to be alone in their grief, and that’s okay too. Simply explain your need to your family and friends, who’ll likely care and understand.

Incorporate a time of remembrance into your holidays

How you celebrate the life of someone who died is unique to you, depending on what the person meant to you and how you feel comfortable commemorating your relationship.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Give a toast.
  • Have those gathered together share a story or memory of the person.
  • Light a candle.
  • Plant a flower or tree.
  • Visit the person’s grave.
  • Light and launch paper lanterns or balloons. (This is especially nice if children are involved in the remembrance.)
  • Say special prayers.
  • Keep photos close; for instance, wear a photo of the person in a locket or keep a picture with you during a special event you wish the person could have attended, such as a religious ceremony or wedding.

Your friends and family want to be helpful and supportive

Don’t hesitate to seek support from others and don’t be afraid to accept help. Here are some easy ways to make sure your family and friends can help in the most meaningful ways.

Lead the way in letting people know what you need

Be clear about whether you prefer to grieve privately, with the support of close friends or with a wide circle of people accessible through social networks.

Tip for friends: Don’t take to social media to offer support, particularly if someone who’s experienced loss isn’t communicating publicly online. This could lead to you sharing something personal that the person prefers not to share.

Ask a friend to set up a meal train

People love to bring food, but nobody needs three lasagnas on the same day. Online tools make meals easy to coordinate, so this doesn’t happen.

Don’t be afraid to ask for food you can freeze — this can be especially helpful for a parent who’s handling the death of a spouse while raising children.

Write down what you need (the “notecard method”)

The “notecard method” will save you from trying to think of something in the moment and make your life easier when asked by a supportive friend, “What do you need?” or “How can I help?”

Here’s how it works:

  • Sit down and make a list of what you need, including things for tangible and emotional support. Things like:
    • Holiday or grocery shopping
    • Food preparation
    • Wrapping gifts
    • Church volunteer responsibility
    • Household chores, like cleaning, mowing or maintenance
    • Specific prayer requests
  • Get a stack of notecards and write down one item on each card.
  • When people ask how they can help, hand them a note card or have them choose something they feel they can do.

There isn’t one right way to deal with grief during the holidays

Everyone copes differently and you’ll find ways that are easier or more helpful for you than others. Allow yourself to feel the emotions, listen to yourself during this time and seek help if you need it. Taking care of yourself, sharing memories and being surrounded by supportive people are a few great ways to get through this time, but you’ll have to decide which methods work best for you.

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