Getting Through the Holidays After a Traumatic Loss

Single red candle burns on empty wooden table, blurred lights in dark backgroundMy older brother and sister-in-law were killed unexpectedly and tragically earlier this year. As one can imagine, the family has been devastated. They were an integral part of our family holidays—my sister-in-law, Lina, baking a cherry pie (just for me), and my brother, Larry, saying the family prayer at mealtimes. Those things aren’t happening this year.

The family is still fragile and grieving, yet we must go on. How do we have our holidays with this loss? How can we move forward and still honor their presence in our lives? Is just “getting through it” enough?

Some family members have talked of “canceling” the holidays this year and doing something different, something out-of-the-box. Would this help with healing? Would it provide a space to move forward without having to face the pain head-on?

Others have talked about keeping the traditions but changing them up—changing the time we get together, eat, play “reindeer games,” and where we gather. Might this help in easing the ache? Does having the holidays, but changing them, make them better?

Some want to keep everything the same. To them, changing the traditions somehow feels disloyal, like a betrayal to our deceased loved ones.

What is the answer?

The answer is there is no RIGHT way to get through this. Simply put, getting through the holidays will be hard, regardless of the “how.” The first everything after a loss is difficult. In the world of hospice care, that is why they follow a family for 13 months after a death, to support and help the family navigate each first without their loved one. The holiday season will bring up the grief and loss we all feel. It’s going to be filled with moments of pain, laughter, tears, nostalgia, and new experiences.

The answer is there is no RIGHT way to get through this. Simply put, getting through the holidays will be hard, regardless of the “how.” The first everything after a loss is difficult.

My advice to anyone in this situation is to be gentle and hold each other close in a space that allows the sadness to mingle with joy. Acknowledge and honor the feelings in the room. Understand that the loss each person experiences is unique, based on the type of relationship they had with the deceased (in my family, Larry and Lina were son, daughter, brother, sister, mom, dad, uncle, aunt, papa, and grandmommie). Communicate lovingly with one another about what you are experiencing and what support looks like to you. Finally, know that laughter and fun are not betrayal, nor do they in any way mean forgetting what happened.

Ultimately, my family decided to keep the holiday experience similar to the traditional celebration we shared before the tragedy. About 20 of us met at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. Our goal was to get through it, honor our loss, celebrate the holiday, and, hopefully, experience some healing as a family.

My nephew and his wife recently had a son. Even while we grieved, having the baby around was a reminder of the joy of new life and gave us a space to know we are sharing old traditions while creating new ones.

At one moment last week, I was eating my cherry pie with a tear in my eye and a smile on my face as I remembered Lina. I watched the Dallas Cowboys football game in honor of Larry. I held my family close, including my new great-nephew, and recognized that getting through this holiday season will be possible.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jimmy G. Owen, LCPC, CDWF, Topic Expert

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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  • Jake

    December 2nd, 2016 at 8:58 AM

    There is never going to be an easy time to get through something like this but it makes it even more difficult when it is your first holiday without those very special people in your life. IT can make you feel so empty to know that they will not be there to share all of the upcoming festivities with you and it truly can leave a bit of a hole in your heart when you think about going through the holidays without them.

  • Patricia McC

    December 2nd, 2016 at 4:59 PM

    I know what this family is on about. I can relate in a way I lost one of my twin boys in April and it’s heartbreaking and it will be tough but if everyone sticks together and and help them during this time then that be great. It’s not a time to forget it’s a time to remember them.

  • Julie

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:05 AM

    Thank you for this. It’s been so helpful and I have shared it with friends and family.

  • Jim

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:25 AM

    Helpful. Thank you.

  • Candy M.

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:25 AM

    Timely subject matter. Vulnerably told. Good to know it’s okay to be sad for a missing loved one at the Holiday Table.

  • Holly

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:30 AM

    There will always be people you feel emotionally connected to whether they are here with you or not. I try not to let this take a negative turn for me but just use it as a time to remember the special memories that I have of these people who were once a big part of my life.

  • CKS

    December 3rd, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    Insightful thoughts. I find comfort in believing my loved ones want me to still be happy and celebrate life even though missing them

  • Martha

    December 3rd, 2016 at 10:09 AM

    Good reminders on how to be compassionate with each other and ourselves.

  • Joanna

    December 3rd, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    This is very helpful and speaks to me in many ways. Very good words to try to remember now that the holidays are here and I have lost so many loved ones.

  • JP

    December 3rd, 2016 at 2:56 PM

    Such a heartfelt reminder to take care for ourselves during grief. Will share with others I know who are grieving as well.

  • Ed

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    That was really good. Very heartfelt and honest.

  • megan

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    After I lost my best friend to a car wreck I didn’t think that I would ever survive that loss. We were like sisters and after she died I really felt like a part of me was missing. I am so fortunate to have had a wonderful friend and family system of support that helped me because otherwise I think that could have just curled up in a ball and done nothing until death washed over me too. It was hard, but slowly and little by little if you allow yourself to fully process the grief that you feel, it can get better.

  • Beverly

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    Nice article. Brings back many feelings I had after the loss of my son. It was very helpful to ask myself what my son would have or want me to do. I always knew the answer.

  • Barbara

    December 5th, 2016 at 11:25 AM

    Thank you for sharing this – it resonates with me and I found it comforting.

  • James P

    December 7th, 2016 at 2:32 PM

    I don’t believe that the grief ever ends. Like the love one shared, it is a part of you. You don’t ever want to forget the love and life that was shared. You want to carry those memories and love with you forever. To make peace with the loss is to understand how that person changed you. The gifts that were given in life and now reside in you. It’s what connects us and makes us whole. It’s what makes our life rich and meaningful. And if you think about it, it is what the departed love one would want for us. We do honor to those who have passed by living a life as fully and as rich as we wish they had been able to share. It’s reminds me of a Kate Wolf in which she wrote “in seeking love, we found truth in understanding”. May we all find that peace in truth this Holiday… — Jim

  • Pearlie

    December 8th, 2016 at 10:41 AM

    Never underestimate the power of a support group. It is nice to be able to talk to those who have experienced the same things that you have. Not that I am comforted by their sadness, not any more than they are by mine, but it is reassuring that hey, this is something that we all go through; we hurt and we grieve and we shouldn’t ever feel bad for going through that process.

  • lindall

    December 9th, 2016 at 11:22 AM

    You could honor them by doing the holidays the way that you know that they would want them to be done.
    You can make a few changes but also talk about them and remember the good times that all of you were able to have together as a family.

    Nothing will ever bring them back, but it might make you smile just a little to talk about them and talk about the things that they would say and do that meant so much to all of you collectively.

  • Kevin H.

    December 3rd, 2018 at 6:36 PM

    I lost my wife Doreen in tragic motorcycle crash 9/2/18. Today is 3 mos. and I am in love with everything about my beautiful wife and always will be. To honor her I must live and go on and enjoy the little things that make a life full; just as she would. I love my Doreen.
    And I always will. She was remarkable in so many ways. I will follow her example and embrace life as she would.
    She will always be in my heart. I love you Doreen. Guide me and help me.

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