Grief and the Holidays

Worried Woman Looking Out Window During the Holidays.See more from this series:

Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa … no matter which winter holidays we celebrate, most of us think of this as a time of joy, family togetherness and traditions. But when we’ve recently lost a loved one, the holidays can be a bittersweet time. Memories of the person who has passed away may be happy and heartbreaking at the same time.

Experts at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health recently offered tips for people who are dealing with grief over the holiday season:

  1. Acknowledge there will be grief. The holidays may trigger your grief at unexpected times, or you may feel more intense grief at certain times. Plan in advance some ways you can express your emotions or how you can get support when you feel grief.
  2. Give yourself permission to do less. This could mean fewer parties, less baking, fewer holiday movies, less anything. Make lists ahead of time of things you absolutely think you need to do, and be willing to let go of tasks that are not as important this year.
  3. Do a gesture to recognize the person you’ve lost and to keep their memory alive. Put up a holiday decoration that they loved, light a candle, or say a prayer. Participate in a holiday event that was very special to them. Don’t be afraid to tell stories about them, and encourage others to share their own stories.
  4. Feed your spirit. Pray, meditate, enjoy a cup of coffee outside in nature, or read words of scripture that are meaningful to you. Find an activity that connects with and recharges your spirit.
  5. Seek out support. Reconnect with a community that provided support to you in the past, or connect with a new support group, including friends, family and faith groups. Remember that sometimes people want to help, but they don’t know how to do so without your asking.
  6. Anticipate questions and comments and consider responses. For example, you might run into people you haven’t seen in a while who don’t know you’ve lost someone and they may ask how your loved one is, or not know about your loss. Have responses prepared so you’re not caught off guard.
  7. Show your emotions, especially to those with whom you are most comfortable. So many of us hold emotions in because we do not want anyone to see how upset we are. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, and the people around you will be supportive.
  8. Change something around. Do something small, like moving the tree. Or, do something big, like going on a trip.

Be in the present. Set your expectations to a reasonable level so that your anxieties do not overwhelm you. And when the holidays are over, no matter what happens, remind yourself that you can do any of it differently next year.

It’s important to recognize that death isn’t the only source of grief in our lives. Poor health, of ourselves or a loved one, loss of our job or other things that are important to us, dealing with Alzheimer’s disease in ourselves or a loved one—all are sources of grief. Even world events can dampen our holiday spirit considerably. Sometimes it’s extraordinarily hard to celebrate “peace on earth” at a time when our world doesn’t seem peaceful.

If a Friend is Grieving

If it’s not you but a friend or family member who is dealing with loss this holiday season, you might wonder how best to help them. Sometimes we feel unsure of what to do, but we shouldn’t let that uncertainty keep us from offering our support.

Mature woman greets a vistor at the door with gifts

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the largest nonprofit membership organization representing hospice and palliative care programs and professionals in the United States, recently offered the following tips:

Be understanding and supportive if someone wants to do things differently this holiday season.  Some people find strength in long-established traditions while others may choose to avoid customs of the past and do something new. It’s okay to do things differently.

Offer to help with decorating or holiday cooking. Both tasks can be overwhelming for someone who is grieving or overwhelmed by events going on in the world around us. Lending a hand can be a great way to let someone know you’re thinking about them and their well-being.

Invite your friend to join you or your family during the holidays. If someone you know seems down or depressed, consider inviting them to join you for a holiday concert, religious service or a holiday meal where they are a guest. You might even offer to accompany them on a holiday shopping trip where a friend and extra set of hands can be helpful.

Ask if the person is interested in volunteering with you during the holidays. Doing something for someone else, such as helping at a soup kitchen, staffing a coat drive, or working with children, may lift your friend’s spirits and help everyone feel better about the holidays.

Never tell someone that they should “get over it.” It can be important to acknowledge that a friend or loved one is struggling. Don’t discount their emotions, but give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.

Be willing to listen.  Don’t avoid someone because you don’t know what to say. Active listening from friends and family is an important step to helping someone coping with grief or overwhelming feelings of loss. Letting them share their feelings can help healing.

Don’t be afraid to remember someone who has died.  When someone is grieving, it is okay to let them know that you are thinking of the loved one who died. Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch.

Follow up after the holidays to check in.  Given the activity of the season, some people may make it through the holidays without any issues but they might find the post-holiday period to be more difficult. So circling back after the holidays to see how your friend is doing can help.

Source: University of Wisconsin School of Public Health ( and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHCPO), adapted by Assisting Hands and IlluminAge. Visit the NHPCO’s CaringInfo website to learn more about grief and loss.