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  • Writer's pictureJulie Rihn, LCSWA

Surviving the Holidays After a Death

After losing a loved one the holidays do not seem to feel as bright, and that is normal. Naturally, the holidays are filled with traditions and memories which can trigger or intensify your grief. Also, the holidays tend to bring on stress from deadlines, finances and family, to name a few. Instead of allowing your grief to become an avalanche during the holidays, making them more stressful or painful than necessary, follow along for some tips for surviving the holidays after a death and how to start feeling a little brighter and relieved.

A sad women lying on a couch next to a Christmas tree.
Grieving during the holidays

The last family photos we took (myself, my husband and our three-year-old son) were Christmas photos. When my husband died in April of 2012, the holidays were not even a thought. I had difficulty even thinking about my next few steps! Yet, just as each day came and went, the holidays were upon me and the rest of my grieving family. It was hard to fathom worrying about how others felt let alone what they might want for a Christmas gift…and what about cards?! The only card I could think about was the one with our photo the year prior.

Honestly, I don't remember all the painful details (a natural coping mechanism, by the way) of that first Christmas without my husband, however, I know it was, and sometimes still is, hard. But it has gotten easier. Healing is a process and some of that process is moving through painful times and experiences. I wish I knew then what I know now. But since I can't go back, I'll pay it forward and share a few of my favorite coping strategies here with you in hopes that you can enjoy some peace this holiday season.

Other than the practical needs of those who are dependent upon you, you don’t need to take care of others by pretending "everything’s all right”.-Brook Noel

Some other things we have done since that first year, which we continues to adapt as our lives evolve:

  1. In Advance, Not the Last Minute – Remind yourself using a post-it, an alarm on your phone, a jot on your calendar, whatever works for you, that holidays tend to trigger memories and stress which may intensify your grief and leave you feeling not so cheerful. To combat this, know it is OK to plan or think about any holiday event months in advance, to walk yourself through potential emotional ambushes.

  2. Plan On a Schedule – Schedule routine self-care, down time and alone time. The holidays often bring lots of family time and events. Its OK to set aside a specific time to grieve! Also make sure any plans you do make don't have strict expectations!

  3. Create New Traditions – Initially, on all special occasions and holidays I gave my son the option to connect with his dad in some way. For him that was to release a balloon upon which he wrote a note. He believed the note on that balloon would reach his father high up in the skies. We still release a balloon on all special occasions and holidays, but now he includes other family members into the new tradition.

  4. Alter (Some) Old Traditions – Traditions help to keep legacy alive. You can continue to put out your loved one’s stocking or make their favorite dish, but instead of gifts, maybe fill the stocking with notes to your loved one or set a place at the table in their honor. You get the idea!

  5. Tell Stories /Share Memories – This can be fun no matter if you are gathered around with adults or reading holiday books with the little ones. Your mind may already be flooded with memories, so throw in some special stories or memories about your loved one. This can help with processing your loss by saying their name aloud, and it can make the acceptance of love and support easier along your entire grief journey. Telling stories of your loved one helps their legacy to live on!

  6. Communicate – Express your feelings to family and friends. Cluing them into how you are feeling may alleviate some emotional stress and alert them that you may not be up to your “normal” holiday routines or events. In turn your own feelings of having to fulfill strict expectations may reduce. Again, communicating your emotions to those close to you will assist in processing your grief and open the door to allowing help, as it can be difficult to do so after loss.

  7. Schedule Time To Grieve – As mentioned above, having a plan or schedule is beneficial, especially after a loss. After a loss life can become a whirlwind and a schedule provides some sense of normalcy. Schedule time to “be sad”? Yes! When times are busier than others, like the holidays, we may unintentionally give too little or too much time to the things we typically do on a normal basis. You may find yourself lost in thought about your loved one, or feeling guilty that you did not spend as much time thinking about them on a particular day. To ease frustration set aside a specific amount of time each day to spend grieving however you need during that moment in time. Maybe that is the time to look through old photos, or to cry, or to ponder. It’s up to you.

  8. Don’t Worry, Be Happy… OR Sad – It is ok to be ok and it is ok not be ok. It is perfectly ok to feel happiness or joy again, even if its just a moment. Its what your loved one would want for you. If you are struggling to see the brighter side of things during any given moment, be patient with yourself and allow yourself the same grace and patience you would extend to a family member or friend. Guilt and pressure are the last things you need during the holidays.

  9. Spread Some Cheer– Sometimes helping someone in need when we ourselves are in need can feel comforting. Helping exerts empathy and compassion, as well as fortifies gratitude and resilience. Helping can be as simple as putting away someone’s shopping cart while putting your own away in the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping. Helping can be making donations to your local food bank or putting money into a collection jar. Helping can be sharing your story with someone else who can use some hope.


I hope these tips will help you to cope and cultivate hope for many different seasons to come!

Which tip do you think is the most useful for surviving the holidays after a death? Share why in the comments below.


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