How To Make It Through The Holidays After A Loss

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When you’re dealing with a major loss, it tends to affect most aspects of your life, whether or not you realise it. Sure, you expect to feel a pang of sadness the first time you go to their home after they pass away, or when you get excited about something and pick up your phone to call them, only to remember that they’re no longer going to pick up—but other times, grief can be sneaky.

Grief can also be downright cruel. The holiday season is a great example of this, with its forced festivities and pressure to put on a happy face and spread your nonexistent cheer. This time of year can also make people who’ve experienced a loss feel as though they’re stuck between two extremes: the inescapable enforced joy of the season, and the pain, stress and burden of grief, Dr. Melissa Flint, a clinical psychologist specialising in grief and associate professor at Midwestern University tells Lifehacker. “Balancing those two polar opposite sets of feelings can make us feel completely out of control,” she explains.

Not only that, but we need to remember that grief is far more encompassing than simply the physical death of a loved one. “People can feel grief over many different losses: health, dreams, our companion animals, how retirement ‘should have’ been, disconnection from friends and/or family, loved ones being far away and unable to be together for the holidays, and so many more,” Flint says.

Of course, every loss is different—as is the way people grieve—so there’s no one-size-fits-all coping strategy that will work for everyone. And honestly, no matter how prepared you are and how well you may appear to be coping, it’s not going to be easy. Having said that, here are some tips and resources that may be useful over the next few weeks.

Come up with a plan

Part of what is so frustrating about grief is that it’s not something you can really control. You never know what will trigger it—whether it’s a family recipe or special ornament—and the holidays are a minefield of memories, traditions and interactions with friends and relatives you may only see once a year. But what we can do is to come up with a plan ahead of time, where we acknowledge aspects of the holidays that may be especially hard, as well as who or what might provide some level of comfort.

Since my mother died three months ago, I have been working with a grief counsellor at the Hospice of the Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, and an aspect of that has involved coming up with strategies for dealing with the holidays. They have provided some helpful resources, including a personal holiday plan, which walks through some of the possible challenges ahead of time, and identifies who you can turn to if/when you need support:

I predict that the most difficult parts of the holiday season for me will be:

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My support people (those who can hear my grief) are:

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The most difficult people to be with might be:

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My grief triggers might be:

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Words that would be helpful for me to hear would be:

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Last year (or years), prior to my loss, I celebrated the holidays by:

This year I want to include the following traditions in my holiday:

Figure out which traditions you want to continue and/or skip

Traditions can be a great way to include someone’s memory into your holiday, but sometimes they can also be triggers and make you really, really miss the person who is gone. Again, instead of being caught off-guard in the moment, it might be useful to go through a list of your family’s traditions to see which ones you actually want to do this year.

Here’s another worksheet I received from the Hospice of the Western Reserve, which contains lists of traditions—including food, shopping, decorating and music—with instructions to mark the ones you’ve traditionally done each year with a “T” and the ones you would like to do this year with a “W.”

Share it with your friends and family and then compare notes. This will help ensure everyone’s on the same page, or at least aware of aspects of the holidays that others may want to avoid. That way you’re not all suffering through watching A Charlie Brown Christmas if no one wants to in the first place, but does it because that’s what they think will make everyone else happy. No one should have to see that sad, little tree under duress.

Know your rights

Remember: you don’t owe it to anyone to be jolly. If you need to selectively participate in festivities this year, do it. If you think you’d enjoy a family tradition but it ends up making you really sad, you have the right to skip it. These sentiments are from the Griever’s Holiday Bill of Rights by Bruce Conley, founder of Conley Outreach Community Services.

You don’t necessarily have to print this out and post it on your refrigerator for all to see (though if you think that would help, go for it), but just reading through all the ways you’re entitled to feel—even if they’re contradictory—can be validating. For instance, Conley reminds us that we have the right to have fun during the holidays. Even if we’re sad and grieving, we should’t feel guilty about enjoying ourselves, if that’s what ends up happening.

Keep your loved one’s memory alive (if that’s something you want to do)

Even if the holidays are especially painful while you’re grieving, you still may want to do something to include or honour the person you lost. Flint suggests doing something anonymously in their name to keep their memory alive. “One of the most difficult things about death is the uncontrollable nature of the events,” she explains. “This is one small way where we can take back some control during the grief process.”

It also gives you the autonomy to decide how to carry on the memory of the person you lost, whether it’s through a random act of kindness, paying a stranger’s grocery bill or making an extra donation of a cause that was important to them.

Always keep in mind that what works for one person might be upsetting for someone else—so be as sensitive to that as possible. And amid all the tinsel, lights and happy faces of the season, knowing that you are not alone grieving during this time of the year may help, at least a little.


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