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Balancing Loss and Gratitude During the Holidays

Woman looking out over city skyline on a winter eveningThe arrival of the Thanksgiving and winter holiday season each year asks us to harvest our blessings: to be grateful, to celebrate, and to spend time with friends and family as we shift towards winter. It can be a time of comfort or stress, security or drama, or all of the above and more.

For people in mourning, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas may feel alienating, confusing, painful, and meaningless. What is there to be grateful for when we have experienced an irreplaceable loss? How do we gather together and celebrate when someone’s absence from the table is glaring? Why toast to life’s plenty when our hearts are bereft?

To Give Meaning to Gratitude, Acknowledge the Struggles

Although gratitude has been shown to alleviate sorrow and stress, it is important first to acknowledge—but not dwell or ruminate on—the losses and struggles we have faced and continue to face. Recognition of our suffering gives meaning to our gratitude, and depth to our optimism. Otherwise, looking on the bright side can feel like an empty, insincere exercise that paves over our pain, rather than integrates it into our lives.

People often try to comfort the bereaved by imposing gratefulness on them: “At least he’s no longer suffering,” “be thankful for your own health,” or “she’s in a better place.” These common utterances may indeed offer comfort later on, but early into mourning as grievers grapple with the unfairness and nonsensical nature of death, these sayings sound cliché and have all the force of a road crew working with “good intentions” (and we know where that road leads). Rarely does counting the blessings of someone in grief help them feel accepted as they are, namely, in a state of grief.

We come to gratitude on our own schedule. Our own blessings are for us to count. Time plays a part in soothing the rawness of grief so that eventually, instead of blinding pain, we can feel a gentle thankfulness for what the departed brought into our lives while they were alive.

Likewise, we may also want to express gratitude for what the person who died took with them out of our lives.

Rarely does counting the blessings of someone in grief help them feel accepted as they are, namely, in a state of grief.

An Alternative Approach to Gratitude

This is not how we usually think of gratitude. We generally give thanks for what we receive, but being grateful for what we no longer receive (or endure) can ease our grief. Noting that loss has more than one side can help to broaden our grief-narrowed focus from what we miss to what relieves us.

For example, we may miss someone’s laughter, and we may not miss the feeling of dread whenever the phone would ring at night. Or, we may miss someone’s handiness around the house, and we may not miss the short temper. Similarly, we may miss the simple presence of a loved one, and we do not miss their suffering.

To acknowledge what we do not miss is not to speak ill of the dead or imply that we would not bring the beloved back in a heartbeat. Rather, the acknowledgment is to bring the departed back into full and vibrant color, to remember them the way we knew them in life, as well as separate our good memories of someone from the painful aspects of dying.

One Exercise for Acknowledging Loss and Expressing Gratitude

Here is an activity to try at home that many have found helpful. All it requires is a pen, index card, and around 15 minutes.

  1. Take the index card and number it 1 to 3 on both sides.
  2. On one side, write three things you miss about your person who died.
  3. On the other side, write three things you do not miss about your person who died.

This card can be kept nearby as a reminder throughout the day, or posted somewhere easily accessible. It may offer some help in calming a storm of grief by acknowledging loss while expressing gratitude.

If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one this season, compassionate support can help. Reach out to a licensed therapist for support in processing grief or loss.

© Copyright 2011 by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Phyllis

    December 12th, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    There is always going to be loss in life. That is a huge PART of life. That is the way that life goes. But maybe this year instead of mourning what we have lost, let us perhaps try a little harder to celebrate all that we have been given. No matter how bad things are, think of the good that life can also bring. It may not bring back that lost loved one but maybe you could feel them smiling down on you just a little day by day as you make your way past some of that pain.

  • parker

    December 13th, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    I hardly think that thinking about things that you did not like about the person that you lost is going to make you feel any better.

    For me I think that it would make me feel even more horrible, like I was dwelling on the negative instead of remembering all of the good that they may have given to me.

    Why would I ever want to remember them like that? Why not think about the things that will bring a smile to your face? That seems like a whole lot healthier way to deal with your pain and loss.

  • ashton f

    December 14th, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    unless the person was suffering from some major disorder,I dont think there could be anything a family member or friend would ‘not miss’ about the departed soul.this is hardly a solution if you ask me!

  • Sadie P.

    December 16th, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    @parker: “Why would I ever want to remember them like that? Why not think about the things that will bring a smile to your face? That seems like a whole lot healthier way to deal with your pain and loss.”

    No, what’s unhealthy is creating some fake image of perfection in your mind to remember them by as if they were angelic. I want to remember my late husband just as he was, warts and all. I wouldn’t do his memory such a disservice by picking and choosing which traits of his I want to emphasize. I want to remember every last one of them, good and bad, because only then will I remember the whole person, not some sanitized version of him.

    It’s much more honest to admit there are things you will “not miss” than gloss over or ignore them. I will not miss him wanting to smoke in bed for example when I have to sleep in there and it kicks off my allergies. I loved him just the way he was and nobody’s perfect.

  • Ivan Chan

    January 11th, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Hello All,

    GoodTherapy is working on a way for us to be notified when someone posts a comment. Until then, I check randomly to see if there are any comments that might benefit from a reply. Please forgive the delay.

    Phyllis: Thanks for your comment!

    Parker: Dwelling on positive or negative can be too much of a good or bad thing in different situations, and my suggestion is to acknowledge that there are aspects we are relieved by after a death. Dwelling or sticking to the positive (eulogizing) can feel one-sided to some people, and the deceased may appear perfect as they never did in life. I agree, focusing on positive memories do provide a relief, and does help one to feel better, but this is usually more effective when the negative memories (such as what it was like in the hospital) have been acknowledged–not dredged up, dwelled upon, or over-focused on–but acknowledged. Similarly, dwelling upon negative memories causes us to stay locked in misery, like not leaving a wound alone for it to heal.

    Also, please keep in mind that not all deaths are of loved ones, and it can be a relief for someone in an abusive relationship to consider, “She used to yell at me all the time, and I don’t miss that.” The other side of the exercise might be, “She did yell at me, but it was still comforting to have someone around.”

    Regardless of the intention of the exercise, if it doesn’t fit your needs, certainly don’t use it! I’ve found that it’s been helpful, and at first, awkward, for some of my clients, based on their direct feedback. And thanks for your feedback, it will help me be clearer about the exercise and its intended effects next time.

    Ashton: The articles I write will have to address many different types of people and their experiences with grief. As a grief counselor working at a hospice, I work with clients whose departed experience major disorders/diseases, accidental deaths, homicides, suicides, etc. Additionally, even without a major disease, some people who die may have dealt with mental health issues that made care-giving for my clients (the bereaved) have difficulty acknowledging how much they miss and what they did not miss about the person they lost. This is an exercise, rather than a solution, for people to think about what they don’t miss (insomnia, overeating, under-eating, etc.), and it’s not always about the deceased’s character, it could be the situation. Most importantly, this is not an exercise that says, “Good riddance, and I’d never have that person back if you asked me,” it’s an exercise that helps people say, “Yes, I’d have him back in a heartbeat, even for only a minute, and I certainly don’t miss the pain of seeing him suffer.”

    Sadie: Thanks for your comment! It moved me to read your last sentence, “I loved him just the way he was and nobody’s perfect.” Yes, exactly.

    My gratitude for everybody who took the time to write in their thoughts and feedback. Please keep on the lookout for my articles and keep posting comments and feedback, sharing with others, and consider emailing me directly if you have a topic you’d like me to write about.

    Take care,


  • Kat

    November 28th, 2013 at 7:20 AM

    My Mom died this year, and her funeral was on Valentines Day. She was 84 and her funeral was a celebration. Sure, I miss her but she was an extremely religious woman and I know she is where she wanted to be.

    That is the circle of life, but I have 4 women friends who lost their child. That is something I cannot help them grieve about. I have no idea what I would do if my child died before me.


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