How to Deal With Grief During The Holidays

Growing up, the holidays usually bring anticipation, joy, and wonder like no other time of the year. There are presents, decorations, family, fun traditions, and plenty of food to go around.

However, as we get older and we experience the death of a loved one in our lives, holidays change. For many of us, the joy zaps out of the room, and we’re left feeling empty and alone.

How can we go on celebrating with holiday cheer, knowing that our loved one is gone and will never share the fun family traditions with us ever again?

When we lose someone significant in our lives, there will be a new normal that we will need to adjust to. Everyone grieves and copes with loss differently, and so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to moving on after a loved one’s death.

That being said, we’ve taken recommendations from grief experts and people who’ve been in bereavement during the holidays to explore how we can find our own healthy ways to deal with grief during these challenging times.

And remember, as you read these recommendations for holiday grief, they may not all feel right for you, and that’s okay.

Be kind to yourself during this hard time and take what fits for you to create peace in your life during the holiday season. You may even allow yourself to try one recommendation, see how it feels, and then decide if it’s the right call for you.

10 Tips for Dealing With Grief During The Holidays

  1. Acknowledge that grieving is part of the process

As the holidays roll around, the times that were typically filled with happiness and wonder can become a time of dread, pain, and loneliness. Our mind fixates on the person missing and has a hard time having hope in what’s left standing.

“The swell of grief around the holidays is a common reason clients enter my therapy office this time of year. People often seek help for the immense sorrow that starts surfacing right around Thanksgiving,” shares psychotherapist Amy Morin in Psychology Today.

During this time, it’s important to understand that grief – intense waves of sadness, denial, anger, relief, joy, and guilt – will be present with us throughout our days.

Being aware of the grief you’re dealing with can help you to begin finding ways to sit with your pain and adjust to a new normal.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ryan Howes explains:

“Don’t push grief away. Some people feel like they need to move on quickly, they don’t want to bring others down, or they feel like being sad would upset the person who died. Grief is a natural experience of tears, longing, and memories that help you process the loss, make sense of it, and eventually move on.

We can’t speed grief up artificially because our calendar or our friends’ comfort levels demand it.

If you’re sad, let yourself feel sad and miss your loved one. That’s what helps you heal.”

You can acknowledge your grief by writing down or sharing your feelings with someone in your life. There is no one right or wrong way to feel, so embrace what you’re feeling in every moment.

“Write a note. If you feel like the thoughts and feelings of your loved one seem to be everywhere and may even get in the way of your current events and relationships, it may be helpful to send them a holiday card.

Write down what’s happening in your life, how you’ve been thinking about them, and what you’re missing. Whatever you feel you need to say.

Then erase it, burn it, bury it, or send it to the north pole, whatever feels right. The most important part is clarifying your thoughts and feelings and expressing them so you can get back to enjoying your holiday,” recommends Dr. Ryan Howes.

  1. Avoid numbing your feelings with excessive spending, food, or alcohol

Around the holidays, there’s plenty of opportunity to spend money, eat lots of food, and indulge in drinking alcohol. In moderation, this is all fine and well.

However, indulging excessively in these activities is likely an attempt to numb the pain.

“Many people who feel sadness and loss over the holidays are tempted to overspend, overeat, or over-drink in an attempt to numb the pain. But really, they’re just adding another problem, as overindulgence just leads to more negative feelings of guilt and emptiness.

Find a way to honor your loved one with a card or a donation or a night of looking through old photos, and then turn your attention back to the loved ones who are still with you,” says Dr. Ryan Howes.

While sitting with the pain is uncomfortable, it will be healthy in your healing journey. Instead of pushing your emotions beneath the surface, allowing them to come and go as they please will help you process the loss and move forward.

If you feel the urge to cry, cry. If you feel angry, try getting your energy out through physical activity.

The next time you add an item to your cart or reach for a glass of wine, take a moment to pause and think about it. Are you picking this up to run away from what you’re feeling? If so, try to engage in a healthier way to cope with those emotions.

  1. Know your limits and set boundaries

It’s common for some people to put on a front and force themselves to go about the holidays as normal, participating in all the planning, shopping, parties, and other social activities.

For some, the holidays are a welcomed distraction from their pain. However, for others, they may feel as if they have to go about the holidays as they usually would.

If you’re feeling like the holidays are too much for you to handle, that’s fine!

You can take time for yourself, create space, and set your own plans. If Thanksgiving dinner or Hanukkah festivities bring up too much pain for you to handle at this point in your grief journey, it’s okay to skip it this year.

While friends and family may try to convince you to get over it or continue on as usual, you have every right to feel what you’re feeling and set your own boundaries for the holidays.

Create a holiday schedule with as little or as much activity that allows you to feel what you need to feel. Share with your family what your plans are and that you appreciate their support of your decision, even if that means skipping the family tradition this year.

By taking the time to plan ahead, you can have more control over your holiday season and do what makes sense for you. If you feel more comfortable driving yourself to the family party so that you can leave early if you want, do that.

  1. Express your needs and be honest

Our friends and family don’t always know what to say or do when we’re grieving, especially since everyone handles grief differently. While some family members may be supportive and comfort you, others may not know how to handle the situation.

During this time, the more you can express what you’re feeling and what you need to those around you, the more they will understand how they can be supportive.

Leading up to the holiday celebrations, take the time to email, text, or call the family you plan to see over the holidays. Give them a glimpse into what you’re feeling and your plans for the holidays.

Let them know that you’re going through a hard time adjusting to a new normal and that you really appreciate their patience with your decisions to attend or not attend the holiday get-togethers.

Maybe this year, you ask your sister to drive with you to the family party and ask that she stay by your side to help get you through the tough times.

If you prefer to talk about the loved one you lost and share memories, let friends and family know. If you prefer not to talk about them, that’s fine too.

The more you share with your loved ones, the more supportive they can be for you. And, if you’re running into unsupportive family or friends, remember it’s okay to walk away from them in order to put your needs first.

  1. Honor the person through past traditions

A great way for some people to find connection with the one they’ve lost is to continue on their favorite past traditions, honoring them in the process.

If your loved one loved baking an apple pie for Christmas Eve, maybe you can continue to do this on their behalf. Maybe you bake it while listening to their favorite music and crying your eyes out.

If your loved one’s favorite pastime was carving the turkey for Thanksgiving, maybe you light a candle for them as you carve the turkey or pass down their duty to another member of the family who will continue the tradition in their honor.

“I deal with it by honoring the traditions we had before my father passed. He would have wanted it that way. I also give him a gift in a donation to a charity he loved.” — Eric R. Burgess (@erburgess) November 11, 2019

Think about all of the past traditions your loved one enjoyed doing during the holiday–whether it’s Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s itself. Take one or a few of the traditions and create a small ceremony around it.

Even if you change nothing throughout your past traditions, sometimes just thinking about your loved one while everything continues, as usual, will help you connect to them and their memories.

  1. Start a new tradition

Sometimes, traditions are too painful to recreate without your loved one present. If this is the case, consider starting a new tradition with them in mind.

Whether it’s changing the house where you normally celebrate the holidays or changing the cuisine of Christmas dinner because your loved one was the one who always made the turkey, it’s okay to switch things up.

If being home for the holidays is too much to bear, you could try leaving town and creating a new tradition of traveling during the holidays.

Whatever it is, know that you can still honor the life of your loved one, even through new traditions.

Remember, you have the option to create something entirely new, or you can simply adjust your existing traditions. Do what feels right for you and how you want to honor your loved one.

“During the first year, when things were the most raw, we had to change things up. We couldn’t keep our traditions the same because it was painfully obvious our person was missing. We changed locations, times, the foods we ate. And we tried to talk about our person if we could.” — Adrienne Barnes (@AdrienneNakohl) November 11, 2019

  1. Help others

When we no longer have our loved one to give love and support, we can feel a void.

Yet, every holiday season, there are people out there who desperately need help, love, and support. By helping others, we can make others and ourselves feel better.

Some options to help others during the holidays include:

  • Volunteering at the nursing home
  • Feeding the hungry at homeless shelters
  • Spending time with people who would otherwise not have company during the holidays
  • Donating clothes
  • Volunteering at a pet shelter
  • Adopting a family to give gifts for the holidays
  • Helping a family member with gift shopping or cooking

Whatever it is you choose to do to help others, your body will receive happy hormones that will make you actually feel better.

Think about ways you can honor your loved one by helping others. If your grandma loved to volunteer at the church, maybe you could step in to fill her place this year. Or, if your wife loved animals, volunteering at the pet shelter may be a great option.

Brainstorm ideas, and if it feels right to you, schedule time to help those less fortunate than you.

  1. Create a memorial

Creating a dedicated memorial space in your home can be a comforting way to honor your loved one’s memory during the holiday season, when their absence is especially painful. This space can serve as a reminder of their presence in your life and the positive memories you shared. 

When setting up this memorial, you might choose a location in your home that holds personal significance. It could be a corner of a room, a table, a window sill, or any area that feels right to you. This location can become a sacred space where you can pay tribute to your loved one or step away from the holiday madness to quiet your mind and think about them.

In your memorial space, you can display photographs or other items that hold special memories. These items might include personal belongings, such as a cherished piece of jewelry, a favorite book, or a treasured piece of artwork. You can add things like candles, flowers, or other symbolic elements to create an atmosphere of reverence. 

This space can be a source of solace, allowing you to connect with their memory and find moments of peace and reflection during the holiday season.

  1. Practice mindfulness

Grieving during the holidays can be emotionally taxing, as it often brings up memories and traditions shared with your loved one. Mindfulness techniques offer valuable tools for navigating this challenging mind state. 

Meditation, for instance, encourages you to focus your awareness on the present moment. By doing so, you can gently acknowledge your feelings of grief without judgment. 

Meditation might involve sitting quietly and concentrating on your breath, or it could mean engaging in a guided meditation that directs your attention to specific aspects of your experience. Meditation practice can help you gain a sense of control over your thoughts and emotions, providing a calm and centered space.

Deep breathing exercises can also be a quick and effective way to manage heavy emotions. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can pause and take several deep breaths. Deep breathing helps regulate your nervous system’s response to stress, reducing the fight-or-flight reaction that often accompanies grief.

By focusing on your breath, you anchor yourself to the present moment, helping you avoid becoming lost in thoughts or memories that intensify your pain. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t erase your grief, but it equips you with the tools to better understand and navigate your feelings, ultimately aiding in your healing process.

Learn how to sit with the intense emotions of grief by practicing mindfulness. Notice the air as it enters your nose and travels down into your belly. Slowly release your breath. Do you feel tension in your body? Visualize your breath traveling to the tension and physically releasing as you exhale.

Come back to your breath often, and if you’d like extra guidance, try downloading and listening to guided meditations on the free app InsightTimer.

  1. Go to a support group

Being the only one intensely grieving during the holidays can be very isolating. However, you don’t have to do this alone. In fact, at any given point in time, there are others out there grieving the loss of their loved ones.

During this time, consider going to support groups to talk with people who are dealing with similar challenges in the healing process. After all, death is a universal experience, and so is grief.

Find a local grief support group to attend before the holidays. You can also check Grief Share’s website for local “Surviving the Holidays” workshops that help guide you through the whole process.

If you know someone else going through grief, it may help to start a text thread with them to share your experience throughout the holidays. The GoodGrief app is a great resource if you’re looking for someone to share the grief experience with throughout the holidays.

Wrapping it all up for this holiday season

If you lost someone important recently, this holiday season won’t be easy, but you will get through it. And over time, the holidays will become more digestible.

As the holiday season approaches, consider Dr. Ryan Howe’s advice:

“It’s also important that beyond honoring your feelings, you are also continuing to live. A year or two of nostalgic anniversaries and meaningful dates are understandable, but you can make room for new experiences, too.

It is possible to keep the old memories alive while creating new ones as well.”