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Grief & the Holidays

The death of someone we love is difficult in itself. The expectations of the holiday season compound that difficulty. A number of thoughts and plans can help us get through this hard time. In the midst of practical considerations, remember that grieving takes energy, so be gentle with yourself and your children. You don't need to provide the perfect holiday — for yourself, for your children or for others.

The holiday season is often a difficult time for those who have experienced the death of a family member. As one woman put it, anticipating the pain of the coming season after her husband died, "I wanted to turn the calendar straight from October to January."

Another young mother, whose daughter had died the past summer, held a Christmas stocking in her hands. "What are you supposed to do with the stocking?" she asked.

We feel our losses more sharply as yet another occasion is experienced without the person who died. Memories of past holidays contrast sharply with the loss of the present holiday. What had once been a time of closeness and sharing and warmth now can feel even colder and emptier than the rest of the year. And we can feel even more set apart, different, at this time of year. It can seem like we're all alone, outside the circle of fun and laughter and togetherness that everyone else is experiencing.

The following thoughts have been gathered as Caring Place families have shared their experiences of the holiday season.

Realize that the anticipation of the holidays is often as difficult as — or even more difficult than — the holidays themselves.

Remember your limits. Grieving takes energy. You may find that you have even less energy now than at other times of the year. Be gentle with yourself and your children and allow yourself to take whatever time for yourself you need.

Seek out supportive people. Find those people who accept your feelings, who understand that the holidays can be more difficult and who allow you to express your feelings — happy and sad. Ask for support.

Don't get caught in unreasonable expectations. Losses and separations of all kinds make this a difficult season. For many people, whether grieving or not, the holidays produce more stress and pain than joy. In light of this, there is no reason for guilt, no reason for wondering, "Am I ruining the holidays?" You don't need to provide the perfect holiday — for yourself, for your children or for others.

Take time beforehand to plan out your activities. Focus on your needs and the needs of your children. Decide with your family what traditions you would like to continue and what traditions you're going to need to let go of this year. Having a plan — while knowing you can change at any point — can help you from being caught off guard. In your grief, you are in the process of changing traditions and rituals and discovering new meaning for the holidays. Allow your children to be a part of this process.

Embrace your memories. Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after someone dies. Sharing and hearing your memories and your children's memories and crying and laughing together keeps the person who died a part of these special days.

Talk about your grief and about the person who has died. Share your feelings and your memories with people you trust. Say the person's name and invite others to do the same.


Remember that different people grieve differently — even within the same family. Allow everyone in the family to express their desires for the holidays. If some family members can't bear to even see holiday decorations and other members would like to make things as much like the "old days" as possible, try to see how much each person's wishes can be accommodated. If a fully decked-out family room would be unbearable for some, what about smaller decorations? Or even paper ornaments made by children and kept in their rooms? If going to a traditional religious service is out of the question for a parent, perhaps another caring adult could take children if the children still want to go. In many cases, the choices don't have to be all or nothing. Be respectful of each other's grief and hopes.

Allow children and adolescents space to grieve in their own way. Be prepared for any type of reaction from children. Be patient with anger or meanness but also be careful of a child trying to "be strong" for you. They need to grieve as well. Give kids space when they need it, alone or with the support and security of friends.

Seek comfort in your faith. If your faith is important to you, being in the presence of a familiar, supportive community may nourish you.

Remember that your grief is important and unique. Be patient with yourself, love yourself and don't let anyone take your grief away. And know that there are times, despite your best efforts, that nothing will seem to work. So remember — be gentle with yourself and with your children.