Coping with Loss During the Holiday Season

sad looking womanIn the early afternoon of November 22, 1963, shots rang out in Dallas and America was forever changed. A nation lost its innocence. Citizens lost their president. And a young woman and her small children lost their husband and father. Thanksgiving was six days away. As the country paused to remember this tragic event on its 50th anniversary, many families are dealing with the grief of their own—more recent—losses.

While most families’ losses are not remotely as public as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the anguish of loss is universal, and often subsequent holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries take on a painful hue. While many are cheerfully decorating, planning holiday meals, and selecting the perfect gift, people who have experienced a significant loss are trying to just make it through each day. Even those who have a bit more distance from the loss might find their wounds reopened as they face their first holiday season without their loved one. If you are grieving this holiday season, consider the following coping strategies.

First and foremost, allow your feelings to serve as cues for how you can make yourself most comfortable. Grieving is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. There is no one right way to do it. One person might feel like the holidays are just too much to deal with and choose not to participate in any festivities. Another might relish the idea of being surrounded by loved ones in a festive environment. Take some time to sit down and reflect on what you feel like you need. Try to put aside the idea of obligations you might feel to others and focus on what will make you most comfortable.

You may feel unsure about what your needs will be this holiday season. The idea of being with family may seem comforting, but what if a wave of grief rises up and makes you feel the need to retreat? Conversely, being alone and steering clear of celebrations might seem like a good idea, but what if you feel so alone you can’t tolerate it and wish you had accepted an invitation? If you’re plagued by these feelings of uncertainty, try to create options for yourself. Consider accepting an invitation, but let your host know that you are not sure you will be up to it and that you might need to cancel or make an early exit. If you give yourself the flexibility of multiple options, you are less likely to wind up feeling stuck in an uncomfortable situation.

Some people find it healing to start new traditions. Doing the same thing you have always done, but without your lost loved one, can be too painful for some. Creating new traditions can be a way of acknowledging that life is, and always will be, different. It can even be empowering. The loss of your loved one was beyond your control, but how you move forward is not. Some people even like to incorporate the memory of their loved ones into the new traditions. If you are considering this, particularly if the loss is still fresh, consider what kind of remembrance you will feel up to. For example, it might feel like too much to make a speech about your loved one or even watch his or her favorite holiday movie, but volunteering for one of his or her favorite causes may feel manageable. Consider what you are up for and leave yourself some space to change plans if you ultimately don’t feel up to it.

Finally, grief tends to come in waves. That means that there are times, even just for moments, when it relents. Try to stay present in these moments and soak them in. Maybe for you, this moment will be watching the look of unadulterated glee as a child opens a special gift, or palpably feeling the love and support of your loved ones as you sit around the dinner table, or even the satisfaction of indulging in your favorite holiday treat. Whatever inspires a moment of joy, peace, or satisfaction, try to stay with it as long as possible. Allow it to really wash over you and permeate all parts of your being. You deserve these moments of relief, and as time goes on and your healing continues, there will be more and more of them, they will come closer and closer together, and they will stay for longer and longer.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, Person Centered / Rogerian Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • josh

    November 27th, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    dad passing away two years ago was a huge blow to my siblings and I.he passed away in October and needless to say that holiday season was of grief and also had a weird feeling to it.we didnt even know how to spend that holiday season.last year it was okay,not too bad,but we still missed him a great lot.this year we pln to get together at the old family home and celebrate by doing what he did best-offering stuff to the needy and lending them a helping hand.we still miss him but with each passing holiday season all of us seem to be coming with grips of the fact that our childhood hero is no longer with us.

  • Frank

    November 29th, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    Anytime that you lose someone close to you it is only natural that the holidays are going to be a little sad and even bittersweet. But what I try to do, and I stress TRY, is to remember the good times that we had together instead of only focusing on the loss.

  • MiMi

    November 29th, 2013 at 4:11 PM

    Those who I feel the most sorry for are the older people who have been married for longer than they weren’t and they lose a spouse near the holiday season. I look at them and at times they seem to be grieving themselves to death too, just so they don’t have to live with the pain and uncertainty of living without someone they have been with for so long. I see this and they are alone and it makes me wish so bad that there was more that I could do to help them, to support them and add something good to their lives during an emotionally tough time such as that. Those are the people you want to hold near and dear because they seem to lost all will to live with the loss of their closest friend and companion.


    November 30th, 2013 at 5:05 AM

    I lost my husband several years agao and I would ike to say that every holiday without him gets a littlee easier but I would be lying.

    It is still hard, very difficult to have these times without him by my siade. I want to feel comforted knowing that he is in a place now where there is no more hurt for him, but then I get selfish and think What About Me? When will the end of my own grief and hurt come?

  • lynne

    December 2nd, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    I think back to that November in 1963 and just how much loss most Americans were feeling.
    You may not have agreed with Kennedy politics but that still didn’t change the fact that this young and vibrant life had been snuffed out in an instant.
    I think that this is a year that most of us who lived through it will never forget.

  • TJ

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:52 AM

    It would be times like this that it would become even more important to surround yourself with the people in the world who love you the most and whom you love right back. I know that there is this tendency to isolate and to live in the depression of what can be the holidays alone, but this is not the best thing for anyone to do. I think that in so many ways and on so many levels sitting and stewing in your own grief only makes it far worse. Yes, I think that it is important to acknowledge that the sadnesa and the loneliness are both there but I also think that you need to have a plan in mind as to how you can and will make it through an event like this. It is so imnportant to not spend time alone, to make it a point to remain involved and if you see a loved one going through this and isolating, be there for him or her so that they don’t have to come through this all alone.

  • Samuel

    December 6th, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    I have never experienced this type of loss but can only imagine that the holidays have to be the hardest.
    I can imagine that all you are filled with are memories of the good times of the past and honestly it has to be hard to think that you will never make any new memories with this loved one again.
    I would have to hope that for those who find themselves mired in this kind of grief that they will know that eventially things do get a little easier and you can find hope and joy in life again, but I know that I am saying this as an outsider, as someone who has never felt this type of loss so I know that the work to get that must be difficult.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    December 12th, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and feelings and for sharing your personal experiences with loss.

    Jeanette, your “what about me” question is totally understandable. I can’t answer your question about when your grief and hurt will end. But I would encourage you to talk about what you are experiencing with loved ones and, possibly, even a therapist. I don’t think you will ever stop missing your husband, but I do think you can heal. I send my best wishes to you in this process.

  • Michael

    February 2nd, 2014 at 6:16 AM

    My Mom died on Christmas morning 2013. My father and I were frantically on our way to the hospital after receiving a call from my sister who was at the hospital telling us Mom was not doing well. About 10 minutes from the hospital my Sister called us and said Mom did not make it. My Dad burst into tears and I told him to pull over. We sat there for about 15 minutes as I consoled him. My Sis said we should turn around and go home because seeing Mom after she died wasn’t something my Dad or I wanted.
    A very sad day and Christmas holiday season will never be the same. But we all say that she is our genuine Christmas Angel. Everyone who knew my Mom said she was a Saint. In a way it was the perfect day for a genuinely good person like my Mom to get her wings. I miss her but know she is in a better place.

  • Beverly Mason, LPC, PC

    February 2nd, 2014 at 8:00 PM

    Now you can celebrate your Mom on Christmas Day. She got to go to Jesus’ birthday party!!

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