A father and son hugging each other
Grief

Coping with grief during the holidays

Yearly celebrations and traditions can remind us of who and what are missing. Grief is complex and unique to each person—but there are ways to live through it.

Rachel Heston-Davis
Rachel Heston-Davis

Rachel Heston-Davis is a mental health writer, content marketing specialist, and former journalist.

10

min read

The holiday season is often portrayed as “the most wonderful time of the year.” But if you’re coping with grief during the holidays, the season might feel anything but wonderful.

Holidays and other yearly celebrations bring consistency to our lives, but they can also be strong reminders of people, pets, and other meaningful parts of life  we’ve lost. Grief may feel different or more intense at these times.

“Grief can make it difficult to feel joy around the holidays,” says Kate Larson, LMFT, who is a certified advanced grief counseling specialist with UpLift. “We may become very torn between wanting to enjoy the holidays, but feeling guilty that we’re enjoying the time without our loved one.” Your feelings of sadness and loss might make it hard to enjoy anything at all, let alone holiday cheer.

Grief around holidays can feel hard to talk about, but you don’t have to suffer alone. Even though you can’t make grief go away, there are ways to cope with it.

How Grief Shows Up at the Holidays

Grief might feel different or more intense during holidays and yearly traditions because these times bring different reminders and challenges related to your loss.

“Holidays have consistency to them,” says Jack Sykstus, LMFT and a grief certified specialist with UpLift. “We build rituals within each of them. All of a sudden, a ritual can be changed overnight after you’ve experienced loss.”

For example, many people gather with certain family members and friends each year at the holidays. Losing one member might make you question what that gathering will look like now, where it will take place, who will be there, and even whether you want to continue gathering or not. Holiday rituals and traditions you used to look forward to may feel sad now, especially if the person you’ve lost had a major role in making the ritual happen. You may be questioning who will take over the traditions, or if it should be changed. These are reminders of loss that wouldn’t usually come up at other times of the year.

Holiday celebrations may bring together people who remind you of your loss, or people who are grieving very differently from you. Some people might want to talk about the missing loved one while others want to avoid the topic. These complications might tempt you to avoid social situations, but you may not want to spend the season alone, either. This is one of the reasons why many people feel isolated during the holidays after a loss.

The First Year—Is It the Hardest?

The first year of rituals and milestones without a loved one can be tough. You may feel sad that your loved one isn’t there, angry about your loss, guilty for enjoying celebrations without them, or empty and lonely. Depending on how recent the loss is, you might be in shock and not feel strong emotions at all. These reactions are normal and okay—and they tend to be stronger during the first year.

But that’s not always the case. 

Larson says the idea of things getting easier after the first year is too general. “It puts pressure on people to think that if their healing stopped getting better after the first year, there’s something wrong with them. But no, there isn’t,” Larson says. You might find yourself still dealing with grief around the holidays even after the first year. There is no “right” time to start feeling better.

How to Cope with Grief During the Holidays

If you’re struggling with holiday grief, there are steps you can take to care for yourself and get through the season. You can use some of these strategies on your own, or together with family and friends to help everyone get through this difficult time.

For Individuals

Grief can make you feel isolated, so it’s important to reach out when needed. It’s okay to ask others for help, either with holiday-related things or with day-to-day tasks. It may be necessary to find a therapist or support group to help you manage your grief. You don’t have to do this alone. 

Try to find a balance of time spent alone and time spent with others. You may not want or be able to show up for all the traditions you used to, and that’s okay. It may help to plan ahead when you will be around people and when you will be alone, to make sure you have the space you need without isolating completely. 

Also, give yourself permission to change your mind. You may think that you can handle a certain tradition this year, but you try it and decide it was a mistake. Or, you might get to the end of the season and realize that you spent more time alone than you really wanted to. This is okay, because now you have more information to make decisions next year. Be proud of your efforts. Most of all, give yourself permission to feel the emotions that come up during this time of the year.

For Families

After a loss, things can feel unsafe and unpredictable. Different members of the family may be experiencing different emotions: one might be angry about the loss, one might be in shock, one might want to push ahead with usual traditions and one might want to take a break from rituals and be alone. One person might cry frequently and openly, while another might not. Sometimes, these wants and needs will conflict with each other. 

Try to create a sense of safety in the family so everyone can process their grief as they need to.

“It’s valuable to have conversations with the family of what each is experiencing and how you can each find a way to be okay with that,” Larson says. “Have an open dialogue about accepting where each family member is in their grief process, and how to allow each other to do that. That’s really important, because each person does have their own way of grieving.”

Sykstus emphasizes that this communication doesn’t have to happen all at once in a huge gathering. One-on-one connections can be very powerful. 

“Be very intentional about picking up the phone, or spending time with one another, and talking about the loss at appropriate intervals,” he says. “It’s not always about sitting everybody down at the table together to commiserate. That can be great sometimes, and there are beautiful moments that come out of funerals and large gatherings, but the best thing I challenge grieving individuals to do is think about the one-on-one. Get together and say, ‘How are you doing after the loss?’ Be very explicit in asking the question.”

Part of reaching out is being prepared to help in tangible ways. This could look like offering to bring dinner, do household chores, or be a listening ear when needed. “It’s about presence and engagement in each other’s lives,” Sykstus says. Just “showing up” for another person who is grieving can be a huge support.

It’s okay to be open and direct about your loss when you’re together with family. You don’t need to pretend the loss didn’t happen. Set expectations for how things will look moving forward. Will the family’s usual holiday rhythms look different this year? For example, maybe a different family member will host the annual gathering. If the loss affected finances, expectations may be lowered this year around gift-giving. Discuss whether the family would like to honor the lost loved one in a special way with a new or old ritual. Decide how to meet everyone’s needs for connection and for alone time.

Family therapy can be extremely helpful at not only helping individual members process the grief, but helping all members of the family respond to each other in helpful, healthy ways.

About the author
Rachel Heston-Davis

Rachel Heston-Davis is a mental health writer, content marketing specialist, and former journalist.

Edited by

Eliana Reyes

Fact checked by
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Every UpLift article is created by our team or other qualified contributors, and reviewed for accuracy by clinicians.

Kathleen Coughlin, LCSW

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