When Memories Hurt: Living with Loss During the Holidays

Cup and blanket on windowsillAs the holidays and end of the year approach, many experience the recurrence of grief as they remember happy times with a deceased loved one. Loss and grief are among the most powerful emotions we can experience. When grief recurs, particularly in relation to the pain of holidays, it can be confusing and overwhelming.

During the holiday season, symptoms of grief that have previously relented might suddenly return, and it can seem as though one is actively grieving again. This experience is known as an “anniversary reaction” or “anniversary grief.”

The first year following a loss is considered the most challenging as a griever faces many new experiences for the first time without the loved one. Psychologist Dr. Therese Rando (1993) describes six processes necessary for healthy grieving. Among these processes is the need for readjustment into the world without the lost loved one. This is, perhaps, the biggest challenge faced during the first year after a death.

It’s common for waves of grief to overwhelm and disrupt the process of adjustment, as described by Rando. Although anniversary reactions can occur for many years following a loved one’s death, they are usually felt most keenly during this first year as milestones are confronted. Holiday milestones can be particularly difficult as anticipation builds.

The deeper truth of loss is that we are never truly finished with grieving when someone significant to us dies. However, there are many ways to live with the loss without suffering from it.Symptoms can include anxiety, anger, and difficulty sleeping, including waking up early or falling asleep. Sadness, crying, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and focusing, and loss of interest in social activities can also be common. Additionally, symptoms may be more than emotional changes. Often, intrusive memories of the loss and memories of past celebrations return.

The deeper truth of loss is that we are never truly finished with grieving when someone significant to us dies. However, there are many ways to live with the loss without suffering from it. It is important to know the return of grief is a normal part of the healing process.

Here are some suggestions to manage the reactions to anniversary grief during the holidays:

  • Change holiday gatherings to limit painful reminders. Gather for a breakfast meal instead of the traditional dinner and consider having another person host the holiday if you traditionally did so.
  • Consider volunteering for a charity activity as a way of honoring the lost loved one.
  • Use your support system and reach out to friends and loved ones to help you through. Tell them which memories may be most difficult and how you would prefer to handle them. Give yourself permission to limit participation in family or social gatherings as needed. Be mindful of your support system during these times, and remain connected.
  • Reconnect with a counselor or bereavement support group.
  • Be gentle toward yourself and handle your memories with care. You can choose which memories to focus on and decide to release particular memories if they create longing or hold you in the past in an unpleasant way.
  • Calm your pain by focusing on both the sad and happy memories shared with your loved one. Recalling happy memories can help ease the pain of the loss.
  • Create space to intentionally remember and grieve regularly. Use this time to consciously recall memories and set the memories aside. Some find it helpful to imagine a container for these memories, which can be opened and closed as needed.
  • Rituals and memorials are helpful for acknowledging the anniversary while also containing the emotional intensity of the event. Draw on your culture, family traditions, and religious or spiritual beliefs to guide you in the creation of a meaningful remembrance.

References:

  1. Corr, C. A., Nabe, C. M. and & Corr, D. M. (1997). Death and Dying, Life and Living, Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
  2. Rando, T. A. (1993). Treatment of Complicated Mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, LPC, NCC, DCMHS, therapist in Monroe, Connecticut

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

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  • Matthew

    Matthew

    December 11th, 2015 at 10:05 AM

    I will say that for a few years after losing my dad I did not look forward to the holidays at all. It only made me sad to think about not having this time anymore with him and I missed him terribly. Now that it has been a while I guess I have a different perspective, I see all of the good times that we once had but now I am making new memories too with my own family by doing the things that we all did together. It helps to focus on this time with my family while still keeping a part of him alive.

  • Don

    Don

    December 12th, 2015 at 2:36 AM

    I am sorry you lost your dad at this time of the year. I to just lost my dad and on top of it am going through a divorce at 59 years of age.
    I have however met a wonderful woman and am focussing on a future with her.
    She is loving and giving and exactly the opposite of my future ex.
    I know there is light at the end of the tunnel and she has been there for me helping me get through my grief
    I wish you luck and future happiness!
    Take care Don

  • William C

    William C

    December 11th, 2015 at 12:59 PM

    If there is one thing that I have learned in life it is that wallowing in my sorrow is bound to get me nowhere, I have to put one foot in front of the other, day by day, to get through the grief process.

  • Laura

    Laura

    December 24th, 2016 at 3:23 PM

    William,
    Just make sure you GO through the grieving process as opposed to FORGING your way past it. Time alone does Not heal all wounds.

  • Liz

    Liz

    December 11th, 2015 at 10:28 PM

    Thank you for this. I lost my Mum in March this year and thought I had coped but recently the grief has been so strong again it is a physical pain.
    This blog has helped me see that it’s normal and OK to feel like this.
    Thank you.

  • Maria

    Maria

    December 12th, 2015 at 1:03 AM

    This is my first time without my soul mate at Christmas. My thoughts struggle already on a day to day basis. Waking up is worst thing ever for me. I am totally scared of this time. Will listen to the advise given above and just hope that I will make it

  • Susan

    Susan

    November 8th, 2019 at 11:08 AM

    You will survive. I am on year two of missing my soulmate of 12 years. This time of year is so Hard. I have been lucky in my freind network. They make sure I don’t bury my head to deep. I am not gonna lie to you and say you will get over it. You will however get through it! The holidays are hard though and usually everyone is in a wonderful mood and become so busy they sometime forget about the person who is going through all this alone. Try to plan some activities even if it is hard even if you go alone it feels alot like your soulmate is beside you. I took myself out of the house and tried to do thing even if I cried like crazy it a way to share your love with your soulmate even if he isnt here hes listening.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    December 12th, 2015 at 8:18 PM

    I lost my mom 11/27/15. I am having a difficult time wanting anything to do with Christmas. I’m going through the motions, as I have small children, but I’m not feeling it. I’m almost dreading it. There will not be a Christmas dinner at her house this year. I’m not searching for that gift she will just love. It’s just hard. Everyone tells me it will get better as the years go by. I’m not sure I can believe that right now.

  • Samantha

    Samantha

    December 12th, 2015 at 11:37 PM

    Brace yourself. I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me when my mother died 08/20/00.
    It never gets easier. Every year, on mother’s day, her birthday, Christmas, or last Tuesday, I miss my mom just as much as I did the week after she passed. I am constantly wishing she was still here, needing her advice, her love, her heart. Christmas is the hardest, because she loved this time of year. The music, the weather, the decorations, and especially the meaning, she loved it all. My first Christmas without her, and for quite a few years following, I had no interest in it, not even for my kids. 15 years later, its still a struggle bit I’m coping a lot better. Not because its easier, because its not. But because, knowing the gentile and loving person she was, my mother would be so disappointed in me if she knows, and I think she does, that I am not carrying on her traditions with her grandchildren. If she were able to scold me for being so selfish I would never hear the end of it lol. Carrying on her memory and the things she loved most about this life is what gets me through each day. I talk to her everyday and that helps the emptiness I sometimes feel. She would be proud of me for pushing through the pain and grief and moving forward. It took me about 10 years, or so, to get to this point. Every person is different when dealing with and facing loss. You have to go at your own pace. You have to grieve the way your soul needs to be at peace. Don’t let anyone tell you to get over it or move on. Your mother is there guiding you.

  • casey

    casey

    December 13th, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    I am pretty young so i have not lost anyone in my life yet, although i know that it will just be the hardest thing when it does happen.
    I have a close relationship with my parents, all of my siblings, and so I think that without them there would be this void in life that would feel impossible to fill ever again if they were not a part of my life.

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    December 13th, 2015 at 4:25 PM

    Thank you, Samantha. You said just what I needed to hear.

  • Emmy

    Emmy

    December 14th, 2015 at 10:22 AM

    I am not sure that things ever really get that much easier when you have lost someone who has made such an impact on your life.
    But I can tell you that every year it hurts me a little less than it did the year before.
    I try not to focus on my own individual pain and hurt and focus more on the fact that those I have lost are no longer hurting, that they are much better now than they could have been in their earthly lives.
    Thinking about it that way tends to bring me a little more solace and comfort.

  • arne

    arne

    December 15th, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    This is my first holiday with both of my parents having passed and it is getting harder as the days get closer to Christmas.

  • Ed

    Ed

    December 15th, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    We all have loved ones in our lives who are no longer with us and that does not mean that just because they are gone we have to let the sadness overtake our fun and spirit this time of the year.
    It just means that maybe we have to create new ways to keep their memories and the hope alive within us and the family. Loving someone can hurt but it can also be nice to reminisce on just how much of a smile that this person could bring to your face, and these are the things that I am choosing to focus on this year.

  • shakuntala d

    shakuntala d

    December 17th, 2015 at 7:40 AM

    my experience has been that everyone moves on at their own pace. i lost my mother several years ago and i revisit with that experience everytime someone else loses a person dear to them but now i think fondly of the good times i had with her and share her wisdom with my own daughter . it has been very therapeutic for me to write so openly of my loss .

  • Gaye

    Gaye

    December 17th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    This is why I have started going away pretty much the whole month of December. It is just too hard for me to be home with no one else there anymore so I have taken this time to travel and find that I am lucky to be able to do so. I have met some great new friends and sure it is a little different than spending time with family but it has been very rewarding too to be bale to get away from that sadness that being home this time of year had started to mean for me.

  • Sheila

    Sheila

    December 18th, 2015 at 4:54 PM

    I am glad you have found a way through this time.peaceful greetings to you

  • feeling sad

    feeling sad

    December 18th, 2015 at 11:16 AM

    helps to no Im not the only one whose sad this time of year especially on facebook where everyone looks sooo happy with families friends and parties. do they know they are lucky to even have families alive with them. I dont

  • Kathy

    Kathy

    December 27th, 2015 at 11:50 AM

    For ‘feeling sad’. Get off FB!!! It will suck the life out of you. I have chronic depression and anxiety. I disabled my account since October. Oct/Nov/Dec I feel very sad. I don’t need to hear about everyone’s happy, perfect life. It has made a positive difference. Not a cure all but a step towards a bit less stress.

    I am sorry to read about everyone’s loss. I am so scared, afraid of losing my mom. She has been with me through everything. I feel I am grieving before she passes. I can’t get through a day without worrying if she’s ok. My dad died in 1992. My mom handled everything. She was so strong. Daddy died after suffering 34 years of Parkinson’s Disease. When he died, we were so happy because we knew now that he was out of misery. Mommy had time to prepare the arrangements as dad was in a coma for a month. I’m so scared I won’t get home in time to be with her. We talk three times a day. I live in NC. Mom lives on her own in MD. I pray constantly For God to keep her alive and well selfishly for me. For me!!! Because I don’t have the strength. I don’t have the strength to get through my own life much less handle the death of the only person who has loved me unconditionally. Anyway, thanks for reading. This is a good website. My prayers are with you all. God bless.

  • janet

    janet

    December 19th, 2016 at 3:03 PM

    when reading your post that i now see is from a year ago, its as if you knew what is going on in my head. i too am petrified of losing my mom who turned 90 this year, i too suffer badly from deep depression for the past 20 years, my father also passed away 7 years ago from Parkinsons at the age of 88, mom was so strong and continued on with her life , we also speak 3 times a day! I am a 60 year old wife and mother of 2 and grandmother of 4
    maybe we can help each other

  • Sharon

    Sharon

    December 18th, 2015 at 5:37 PM

    This is exactly what I needed to read before this weekend! In 2007, I lost my precious sister in a tragic car accident five days before Christmas (on our return trip home from holiday shopping), and the holidays have felt “ruined” ever since. It’s so hard to experience such layered, difficult memories at a time we’re so pressured to focus on “togetherness” and joy. Thank you for helping me feel less alone.

  • Kim

    Kim

    December 19th, 2015 at 7:04 AM

    Christmas time has to be the one of the worst times of the year. My loss started on May 29, 1987 when my brother Johnny died from surfing on top of the El he was 23 yrs old it ripped my family apart. I had to identify his wallet & his shoes. It almost killed me. My brother was everything to me, I would have walked through rings of fire for him & my parents, siblings (3-sisters) & myself were never the same.

    Ten yrs later (Oct. 30, 1997) I was called home by one of my sister’s because they couldn’t get into my house & when I got there, I found my Mom dead in her bed. She died in her sleep. Little did I know that she was already gone before I left for work that morning. It was one of the hardest things I was ever faced with in my life, besides loosing my brother 10 yrs before that.

    Then on Nov. 8, 2012 my brother-in-law called me to my Dad’s house, to tell me they found my Dad dead on his living room floor. That devastated me &my sisters. My oldest sister never recovered from it, she wanted nothing more then to join our Dad.

    Three yrs later on Nov. 7, 2015 my sister called me to tell me that my oldest sister was in the Hospital & that we had to get there immediately. When I got there, she was on life support & it didn’t look good. The next day on Nov. 8th (same day my Dad died 3 yrs to the day) her husband & only child (son), decided to pull the plug. It has been the most hardest years of my life, & now left behind are only me & my 2 sisters.

    Sometimes I wonder how this could have happened? I blamed God, myself, & one day I remembered what my Mom had always said & that “God doesn’t give you anything,that you can’t handle”, & “What doesn’t Kill you makes you Stronger”, & I whole heartedly believe that. So don’t let anyone tell you its over & done with & to go on, because until your ready to do that, it will never work for you. Only you will know when that time comes, so if your loved one loves xmas or any other time of the year, then celebrate it, I know from experience that it will not only hurt to do it, but will bring you peace at the same time.

  • Judy

    Judy

    December 19th, 2015 at 4:03 PM

    OH THANK U KIM FOR SHARING AS WHAT U SAID RINGS SO TRUE FOR ME! U HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD! I’M OVER HERE RIGHT NOW, A CRYING MESS AS I KNOW I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO FEELS THIS WAY. AND THAT SOMEONE ELSE UNDERSTANDS EVEN THOUGH WE DONT KNOW EACHOTHER NOR HAVENT MET. IT ALL REALLY STARTED FOR ME WHEN MY MOM PASSED IN FEB 1996 AND FATHER AND OTHERS LATER ON, BUT HOLIDAYS HAVENT BEEN THE SAME. I MISS THOSE FAMIKY GATHERINGS ETC. FOR THE HOLIDAYS ESPECIALLY. BUT OTHER DAYS(THANKSGIVING, BIRTHDAYS, MOTHERS DAY, ANNIVERSARY OF DEATH ETC) ALL THOSE ARE HARD FOR ME AND I STILL GRIEVE LIKE IT WAS YESTERDAY. I DONT HAVE ANY KIDS ETC SO DONT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT “PERFORMING” FOR THEM AND CAN “JUST BE” TO HAVE/DEAL WITH OR NOT WITH STUFF. AND ALLOW MYSELF TO GRIEVE. BUT I AM HOPING I’M NOT IN TOO MUCH PHYSICAL PAIN AND CAN GET A RIDE TO MY CHURCH ( SHILOH CHIRCH OAKLAND) ON CHRISTMAS TO HELP OUT SERVING THE COMMUNITY AS IVE DONE IN PAST YEARS AND IT BROUGHT ME GREAT JOY TO HELP OTHERS AND GOT ME OUT OF MY SAD/HARD FEELINGS FOR AWHILE. ONE MORE THING- I USED TO “DISAGREE”( FOR LACK OF BETTER WORD)WITH THAT SAYING OF ” GOD DOESNT PUT MORE ON US THAN WE CAN BEAR ETC”.. AS IVE BEEN THROUGH THE RINGER AND STILL FOING THRU IT AND WONDER HOW I’M STILL ALIVE AND MADE IT THEU IT ALL. BUT I KNOW THAT GOD MUST HAVE A GREAT PLAN AND PURPOSE FOR MY LIFE AND I GUESS WHAT? I REALLY HAD TO GO “THROUGH” SOMETHING IN ORDER TO “GET TO” SOMEPLACE. SO I’M EAGERLY LIOKING FORWARD TO THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. GOD BLESS U ALL AND MERRY CHRISTmas AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!😇

  • Joanne

    Joanne

    December 19th, 2015 at 6:42 PM

    hi all, I guese the less happy of us don’t usually say much as its so unpopular to do so. Xmas can be an oppressive time in many ways. I lost my Mum in 1992 and yes I miss her still, though it is someone I haven’t seen or spoken with for 23 years so it does fade, the pain does die and also the memories are harder to retrieve. My Mum was always very stressed and very sad at this time of year as she lost her Mum on new years eve when she was only 18. That sadness, stress and indifference passed through to some of us children so I am always wishing the world would take a break from Xmas and all its doings. So sorry to read these stories, I hope you can heal a little more through this time and get the rest and repair you need. I will be alone for the day as thats the way it is for me though at least in the afternoon I am invited to the neighbours for a meal. Some people are so kind and sometimes its better to not be with family. Best wishes.

  • Charlotte P.

    Charlotte P.

    December 19th, 2015 at 9:58 PM

    I lost my Mom Jan. 10, 2001 it was so hard, she had Alzheimer’s and I kinda felt that she was already gone, her funeral was on my birthday. My Mother-in-law passed away on Dec. 22, 2004 and my husband still has not gotten over her passing. I think we should start going away during the holidays also it might help us both to heal a little more. The best to you all.

  • Justine

    Justine

    December 21st, 2015 at 2:42 PM

    Even though I would agree that it gets a little easier over time, there never goes by a time when you simply stop missing them.
    That doesn’t happen at all.
    You may miss them in a way that is not as intense as it once was, but you do still miss them.

  • Darlene

    Darlene

    December 25th, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    I totally agree with you here, for I lost my dad 10 1/2 yrs ago and it still feels like yesterday. There’s not a day go by that I don’t think about him n cry. Christmas was his favorite holiday and is why it hurts so much.

  • KarenSue

    KarenSue

    December 24th, 2015 at 8:53 AM

    My father died on Dec 28 1988. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day I spent the days and nights in a chair next to his bed. This season is always a sad time for me. It is a struggle to maintain a happy face.

  • Susan

    Susan

    December 25th, 2015 at 6:55 AM

    Thank you. I am learning to grieve one day at a time since my brother Junior’s funeral two weeks ago. I am just going throuh the motions because it doesn’t seem real…

  • Marie

    Marie

    December 25th, 2015 at 7:33 PM

    Thanks to everyone who share their stories and experiences with griefs. I have been to many lost in my family too and just lost my best friend my dear sister in cancer this year, the fouth in my immediate family. Life has been hard and this time it is even worst since I have been in severe depression and anxiety and trying to get back on my feet, Christmas is hard and I even wasn’t able to be at my daughter Christmas Eve dinner and lost her special day, her boyfriend asked for her hand and I wasn’t even aware. I feel so sad and mad that all this stuff going on and I can’t get back on my feet and I am also taking care of my aging mother and I don’t know what to do anymore. Maybe, what don’t kill you get you stronger but many had so much they take their own life, or finish on the street or taking pills to keep on going. I am sorry for everyone lost and thanks for your tips. I feel less guilty hearing you because I was not able to get strong enough this first Christmas and I appreciate hearing your suggestions and feel that it actually was better keeping away for this time.

  • Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, LPC

    Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, LPC

    December 26th, 2015 at 12:17 PM

    As the author of this blog, I have read your comments and am grateful for the way you have supported one another throughout the comments thread. The intensity of grief around the holidays can be very difficult to bare, I do hope you are treating yourselves with gentle compassion and kindness. It is important to recognoze the point when you may need professional support. I too have experienced significant losses and would not have managed in their aftermath without the support and guidance of a professional. Peace and blessings to you all.

  • Kathy

    Kathy

    December 28th, 2015 at 1:51 AM

    Re-read all the comments again. It helps to know how you are surviving your loss and coping in your own individual ways. It is never easy.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    July 30th, 2017 at 3:32 AM

    Lost my mum18 months ago . I brought a house with my bed and was never able to move in . My brother got upset coz I left him alone at Christmas coz,I choose to see my family and not his . It was my first Christmas without her and I needed to be with my brother and sister . I have pushed my be away and fought with him because I was grieving . He has taken it personally and decided to leave me . Why can’t he understand I just wanted my mum in my life .

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