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Family Files

Helpful tips to cope with grief this holiday season

black box with garland, text reads the bittersweet season

The holiday season is fast approaching and given the loss, turmoil, and uncertainty that we have recently experienced, I thought it would be helpful to revisit this post from a few years ago.

While the holiday season brings about joy and celebration, it can also be a time of great sadness and pain as traditions and family memories can intensify grief. The season is truly bittersweet – sweet memories of a loved one combined with the reality of loss.

The holiday season after my grandfather passed was pretty typical. The family carried on, celebrated, and enjoyed the holiday just as much as any other. It was as if he was still there. I remember his empty chair at the table, the lack of his warm smile and even warmer hug, but where I really noticed his absence was at, of all places, the kitchen sink. My grandpa – the decorated POW and WWII veteran – humbly, even joyfully assumed his position at the kitchen sink after every family or holiday meal. I can still see him standing there, doing the dishes, humming quietly to himself and serving his family (and wife) in the simplest way he knew how. That Christmas, I missed and even grieved his quiet act of service. It surprised me how grief unexpectedly washed over me at the absence of this small, precious act of service. To this day, when I have the opportunity to do the dishes after a holiday meal, I envision my grandpa from so many years ago. It’s as if I’m able to connect with him again.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is a difficult experience at any time of the year, however, during the holiday season, we’re often reminded of our loss through family traditions and celebrations as well as the ever-present push to get into the “holiday spirit.” We associate holidays with good times and special memories, making us all the more likely to miss our loved one even more at this time of year.

There are nearly endless blog posts, articles, books, support groups, and seminars that focus on the topic of holiday grief. There is not one way to grieve or one way to cope with loss around the holidays. Even so, the following suggestions may be helpful in coping with loss during this time of year.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, has identified tips to help healing during the holidays:

  • Express your feelings by accepting and communicating about them.
  • Be aware of both your physical and psychological needs.
  • Avoid overextending yourself and reduce unnecessary stress.
  • Surround yourself with friends and family members who are caring and supportive.
  • Remember and honor your loved one by including his or her name in your conversations.
  • Assess what you need to do during the holiday season and refrain from pressure from well-intentioned friends and family members on what you “should do.”
  • Evaluate your family traditions by considering those you want to continue and identifying new traditions you would like to begin.
  • Share the treasured memories of your loved one with others.
  • Reflect on the meaning and purpose of your life.
  • Express your faith, if important to you, through attending holiday services or ceremonies as well as spending time with those who share your same beliefs.

Supporting a grieving person can also be difficult during the holidays. Well-meaning friends and family members are often at a loss of what to say or do to help. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization recommends the following suggestions to help a grieving person during the holidays:

  • Support the person in the way that they choose to celebrate the holiday.
  • Offer to help with daily chores and errands or holiday preparations.
  • Include the person in your holiday celebrations and religious services.
  • Encourage the person to volunteer with you during the holiday season.
  • Honor their loss by making a donation in their loved one’s name.
  • Avoid passing judgement on their grief by telling the person that they should be “over it.”
  • Give the gift of active listening if the person wants to talk about his or her loved one.
  • Remind the person that they and their loved one are in your thoughts.
  • Check in with the person after the holidays to assist with any post-holiday grief that may occur.

Even though the holiday season can be a difficult time when dealing with loss, it can be a time of reminiscence and love – a time to honor the memory of a loved one while healing from their loss.  May you be comforted in your grief this holiday season.


Additional Resources:

Center for Loss and Life Transition, Helping Yourself Heal During the Holiday Season

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, Grieving During the Holidays


Meet the Author: Karla Belzer is a family life educator serving in northwest Illinois since 2015. Prior to her work with Extension, she worked in health and human services for over 20 years. She specializes in mindfulness, social-emotional development, aging well throughout the lifespan, and educator professional development. She is passionate about helping people of all ages live their best life.