Grief & The Holidays: Dealing With The Pain

“The holidays are times spent with our loved ones.” This has been imprinted on our psyche from a young age. Holidays mark the passage of time in our lives. They are part of the milestones we share with each other and they generally represent time spent with family. But since holidays are for being with those we love the most, how on earth can anyone be expected to cope with them when a loved one has died? For many people, this is the hardest part of grieving, when we miss our loved ones even more than usual. How can we celebrate togetherness when there is none?

When you lose someone special, your world lacks its celebratory qualities. Holidays magnify that loss. The sadness deepens and the loneliness can feel isolating. The need for support may be the greatest during the holidays. Pretending you don’t hurt and/or it isn’t a harder time of the year is just not the truth for you. But you can – and will – get through the holidays. Rather than avoiding the feelings of grief, lean into them. It is not the grief you want to avoid, it is the pain. No one can take that pain away, but grief is not just pain, grief is love.

There are a number of ways to incorporate your loved one and your loss into the holidays.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years

These are the biggest and usually most challenging of all. You can and will get through the Holidays. Rather than avoiding the feelings of grief, lean into them. It is not the grief you want to avoid, it is the pain. Grief is the way out of the pain. Grief is our internal feelings and mourning is our external expressions.

Ways to externalize the loss – give it a time and a place
  •  A prayer before the Holiday dinner, about your loved one.
  •  Light a candle for your loved one.
  •  Create an online tribute for them.
  •  Share a favorite story about your loved one.
  •  Have everyone tell a funny story about your loved one.
  •  At your place of worship remember them in a prayer.
  •  Chat online about them.
Ways to Cope

Have a Plan A/Plan B – Plan A is you go to that holiday dinner with family and friends and if it doesn’t feel right, have your plan B ready. Plan B may be watching a movie you both liked, or looking through a photo album, or going to a special place you went to together. Many people find that when they have Plan B in place, just knowing it is there is enough.

Cancel the holiday altogether. Yes, you can cancel the holiday. If you are going through the motions and feel nothing, cancel them. Take a year off. The holidays will come around again and will always be there. For other people, staying involved with the holidays is a symbol of life continuing. Let the holiday routine give you a framework during these tough times, and lean on a holiday support system.

Try the holidays in a new way. Grief has a unique way of giving us permission to evaluate what parts of the holidays we enjoy and what parts we don’t. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to handle the holidays in grief. You have to decide what is right for you and do it. You have every right to change your mind, even a few times. Friends and family members may not have a clue how to help you through this time of year, and you may not either.

It is very natural to feel you may never enjoy this time of year again. They will certainly never be the same as before your loved one’s death. However, in time, most people are able to find meaning again in the traditions as a new form of the holiday spirit grows inside of them. Even without grief, our friends and relatives often think they know how our holidays should look, what “the family” should and shouldn’t do.

Do’s and Don’ts
  • Do be gentle with yourself and protect yourself.
  • Don’t do more than you want, and don’t do anything that does not serve your soul and your loss.
  • Do allow time for the feelings.
  • Don’t keep feelings bottled up. If you have 500 tears to cry don’t stop at 250.
  • Do allow others to help. We all need help at certain times in our lives.
  • Don’t ask if you can help or should help a friend in grief. Just help. Find ways; invite them to group events or just out for coffee.
  • Do, in grief, pay extra attention to the children. Children are too often the forgotten grievers.

Valentines Day

Valentines Day is a day to honor our spouse, girlfriend / boyfriend or anyone we are romantically involved with in the present. The past can represent a hole in your heart where your loved one used to be.

  • Write a love letter
  • Smile a smile for them
  • Light a red candle
  • Tell someone about them.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day

Mother and Fathers Day are often thought of as an invisible sad day of mourning while many people are rushing around trying to get that perfect gift or make sure they remember to send mom / dad a card. There are over one hundred million Americans that for them, this is a sad day. Either because they have a mother or father who has died or a child has died.

  • Find ways to honor and remember your mother/ father or both.Think of ways to honor your child.
  • Light a candle
  • Say a prayer
  • Donate time or money in their name.
  • Do something you loved to do together on that day.

It isn’t as important how you remember, you honor them by the fact that you remember.

Just Remember

Holidays are clearly some of the roughest terrains we navigate after a loss. Finding meaning in the loss is as individual as we are. We often say a part of us died with them, but finding meaning is also realizing a part of them still lives within us. What is vitally important is that we be present for the loss in whatever form the holidays do or don’t take. These holidays are part of the grieving journey that we must fully feel. They are usually very sad, but sometimes we may catch ourselves doing okay, and we may even have a brief moment of laughter. Now more than ever, be gentle with yourself. Don’t do more than you want, and don’t do anything that does not serve your soul, your loss, or the meaning that still lives within you.


David has a new book called, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage.  Anyone who purchases the book will receive a free course given by David.  

Find a Local Chapter

Use the chapter locator to find out information about chapters in your area. Locate a Chapter by selecting your state and zip code.

Comments (6)

  • Thank you for your amazing advice which I will take on board. I have just lost my 19 year old son to a really horrific cancer 11/10/19 after fighting it for nearly 3 years. He was my baby and I am really really struggling with the pain and grief. His older brother and sister as well as my partner are in pieces. I am not ready for Christmas whatsoever

    • Dear Lynda, I am so very sorry for the recent loss of your son. As a bereaved mom myself, my heart goes out to you and your family. And, yes, the holidays are so very difficult, especially with such a recent loss. Here is the chapter locator to see if there is a chapter where they have support groups with others who have lost a child. I know it helped me to be with others who understood and connected with. There are many other resources such as private Facebook groups and online chats on our website. If you have any questions or need any further information, we are happy to help. Sincerely, Cathy

    • I understand what you are going through Lynda. My daughter died last summer in 2018 from heart failure due to her struggle with the disease of Eating Disorder. She was 22, would have turned 23 in August. Christmas was extremely painful last year. So this year my niece and I are going to a Yoga/Meditation retreat in Morocco. My niece was like a sister to my daughter and I know that this would please my daughter. Sending you positive healing energy. It takes time. I still cry a lot. Take the time you need to heal, it will take time. Some days are good and others not so. This is the nature of grief. There are a couple of affirmations from Louise Hay that I use when I am unable to cope. It helps. If you interested I can send them to you.
      Much love and blessings to you and your loved ones.

  • This doesn’t just happen when a loved close person dies. Marriage split ups can cause the same pain. This doesn’t seem to be recognised. I know because I’ve been there. Especially hard when people ask about your ex expecting you to be happy when all you want is to have them back in your life.

    • Thanks for mentioning that. The reason you will see so many people talking about the loss of their children, siblings or grandchildren is because The Compassionate Friends is a self-support, nonprofit national organization to bring friendship, understanding, support, and hope to those who have lost a beloved child, sibling or grandchild. Thanks for sharing.

  • I lost my husband July 5, 2019 God answered my prayers. He did not suffer or have pain. He passed in his sleep.
    Thanksgiving was tough but Christmas is even harder. Jack was 85 I am 80.

Comments are closed.

Sign Up for the Compassionate Friends Newsletter

  • Phone: 877.969.0010
© 2024 The Compassionate Friends. Privacy Policy
This site was donated by the Open to Hope Foundation in loving memory of Scott Preston Horsley.
BBB Accredited Charity Best America Independent Charities of America 2012 Top Ten Grief & Loss