Coping with Heartbreak, Loss, and Grief During the Holidays

Days that are culturally associated with celebration and joy can amplify the pain of loss.

Days that are associated with celebration and joy can amplify the pain of loss. If you're experiencing grief during the holidays, try practicing self-care.

Any day of the year can bring reminders of loss. We each carry around important dates unique to our relationships, along with places, things, and shared experiences that point to memories of life before a loss.

Holidays are no exception, though the anticipation and pressure to be happy can be worse than the holidays themselves. Days that are culturally associated with celebration and joy can amplify the pain of loss.

“How can I celebrate when my person is gone?”

Individuals may dread the reminders of a loved one’s absence during holiday events, especially within the year after a loss, sometimes called the “year of firsts.” Or it could be the 8th, 12th or 23rd holiday after a loss that is most difficult.

An unexpected reminder can insert grief into a season of relief. Other days of the year can trigger more raw emotions while a holiday is a welcome break. You may wonder how you’ll make it through Father’s Day, but Thanksgiving seems safe.

Grief has no timeline, formula, or true endpoint. When it comes to grieving during holidays, there is no right way to grieve. You get to decide what works for you. So, the following are not guidelines, but helpful reminders for facing a holiday after a loss.

Acknowledge Your Grief During the Holidays

In Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B, she describes unacknowledged grief as an elephant in the room. Leaving grief unspoken can lead to the added pain of disconnection from others, who are hesitant to address the elephant.

“Think about a meaningful way to include your loved one’s memory in holiday traditions.”

When grief is acknowledged, the healing process can begin. In the open, grief is likely to take up less energy and can become a part of the holiday instead of an obstacle to avoid.


Accept the Full Range of Emotions You Feel

Within the pain of loss, you may find joy as you recall memories of your loved one. Guilt may hit when you catch yourself laughing around the table with family and friends. Life’s sorrows and joys are intertwined.

Rather than judge your emotions as good or bad, accept them as a normal part of the grieving process.

Both Patton Oswalt and Sheryl Sandberg have shared the importance of claiming back joy after loss, not in spite of grief, but in the thick of it.

Was there a holiday tradition you particularly enjoyed but are hesitant to participate in without your loved one? When you’re ready, take it back their honor.

Christmas cookies are a deeply rooted tradition on my mom’s side of the family. The Christmas after my Grandma’s death, my Grandpa made slice-and-bake cookies to remind us of our continued connection with her and her baking, and a nod to the fact that there was no way he was quitting Christmas cookies. Her signature candy cane cookies will be on dessert trays at family parties for years to come.

Practice Self-Care

The busy nature of the holiday season already makes us more susceptible to emotional stress, physical fatigue, and relational tension. Find our series on self-care during the holiday season HERE.


Take Breaks

Self-care may mean taking a break. Give yourself permission to take a walk during a holiday gathering, skip the event, or even skip the holiday entirely. Choose some tasks to skip, like writing holiday cards or baking a dessert from scratch.

After attending a party, reward yourself with time to recharge with a favorite movie or the book you’ve been wanting to read. Some have found it helpful to travel somewhere new to relax away from the bustle of the holiday season. 



Identify and Communicate Your Needs

Once you have identified ways you will take care of yourself during the holiday, let others know your plans.

Surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries and understand that grieving is a life-long journey. If your plans change, give yourself grace—grief doesn’t always stick to the plan.


Create Meaningful Rituals and New Traditions

Maintaining a connection with a deceased family member or friend through traditions can help cope with a loss.

A beautiful example of this came with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s recent engagement. They shared how they’ve made his mother a part of their relationship and engagement by connecting with people who were close to her and using her diamonds in the ring design.

Think about a meaningful way to include your loved one’s memory in holiday traditions and special occasions. Some find it helpful to keep this small, a part of the whole, rather than the main focus of the holiday season.

This could be as simple as lighting a certain candle each year, creating a memorial collage to display, or engaging in an activity they enjoyed.

Give yourself permission to create new traditions or blend new and old traditions. These don’t erase traditions you’ve shared with your loved one, but reflect your journey of growth and healing after loss.

If you know someone who experiencing grief during the holidays or has experienced a recent loss, these articles offer insight on supporting them during both the holiday season and the rest of the year.


Click here to read more articles by Elise Howell, LPC!


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