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Coping with Grief and Loss During the Holiday Season

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

As we move into the winter season, we begin to prepare for the upcoming holidays. Christmas and other holidays may be times of joy and celebration; an occasion to reunite with loved ones and to share traditions and good times, for some people. Friends and family often talk about and make plans for celebrating and getting together. However, for many who have recently lost a loved one, this can be an especially difficult time of year. There are situations that can make this season extremely hard for other people. Losing someone or something you loved is a very painful experience and the holiday season makes it even more difficult to cope with grief.

Holidays and special occasions often work by magnifying and intensifying the grief response, especially when the loss has been recent. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that grief has no time frame and the third or fourth or fifteenth holiday season may be just as painful as the first. Be proactive and look for ways to cope with the devastation of the loss. Friends and relatives, along with your EFAP, are essential supports as you to navigate through my grief. In the end, you are the one who has to do the hard work to process grief and emotions with much needed love, encouragement, and support.

Learning to Cope with the Loss You Feel

Grief is not the 5-stage, straightforward process we often hear about. Grief and loss are a natural response to losing someone, or something, loved and it is uniquely individual and often isolating. It is not only death and dying which bring upon feelings of loss and grief. It may be distance (physical or emotional), it may be a break-up, separation, or divorce, the loss of routine or employment, the loss of milestones, celebrations, and traditions, and many other losses including the loss of a beloved pet.

Acknowledging the emotions that accompany your loss is very important in dealing with the holiday season. Hiding your feelings and pretending you don’t hurt isn’t helpful. Leaning into the grief allows you the opportunity to recognize that there is no right or wrong way to deal with your emotions. Others may try to tell you what you should do, but it’s important to listen to what is right for you and to “sit” with the emotional response in your grief. This can help you as you approach the holiday.

Communicate with those in your life who support and love you. If you can’t deal with all of the previous rituals you’ve engaged in, focus on what you can handle. Don’t try and pretend like everything is okay if it isn’t. Be gentle with yourself and set realistic expectations this year. You might not be able to do everything you’ve done in the past, but that’s okay.

It’s often suggested to prepare by honoring the person that is no longer with you during your holiday. Create new traditions; you might want to put together a memory box or a memory stocking. Place something on the table that has been made especially for that person; share your loved one’s favorite dish, a flower arrangement, a personal article, or have a holiday toast to the person who is gone. You may wish to buy a gift for your loved one and donate it to a charity. Give back to a group or a project in the name of your family member; play your loved one’s favorite music, look at old photo albums, share funny stories and anecdotes. Visit the gravesite alone or with a trusted friend or family member.

Remember to include children in the grieving process in an appropriate way and to speak those words out loud. Our culture is often guilty of hiding our emotions and grief by thinking that we need to get over it and move on.

There is no magic formula for dealing with grief and loss during the holiday season, but if you take the time to listen to yourself and prepare for the event, you may be able to find ways in which you can get through this difficult time.

Helping Others Cope with Grief & Loss

When someone you care about is grieving after a loss, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. You may be afraid of upsetting the individual further, you may worry about intruding on something so personal, and as a result you may shy away from the person.

Grieving individuals can often feel isolated and lone as the intensity and sensitivity of grief can make people uncomfortable about reaching out and offering support. Now, more than ever, your loved one needs you. The most important thing you can do for a grieving individual is to be there.

Here are some things to consider if someone you know has experienced loss and is going through a tough time this holiday season.

Ask, don’t assume

Grieving people are experts on their own grief. Do not impose traditions and celebrations or ways to cope upon others. It is better to ask the grieving person what would feel better for them during this difficult time. Acknowledge, that this may be painful and allow them time to talk or respond. This type of conversation might be uncomfortable for you but it might bring great relief to the grieving. If they do not feel like speaking about it, be respectful of that too, but leaving the door open is helpful.

Be sensitive

Try not to be judgmental if they tell you about difficulties they are having. No matter how simple a task may appear to you, for a grieving person, basic activities may feel unachievable.

Comments such as “oh, are you ok now?” or “you seem better now” may also be very painful. Grieving individuals are also capable of having a good time, they are allowed to take a break, to be distracted, and that does not necessarily mean that they are healed. If you want to comment on a good time, share that you are glad to see them or to be able to spend time with them.

Holiday cards

Most holiday cards talk about joyful times, about being grateful and about the happy New Year you are about to have. Opting for a personalized card is a good option to express your good wishes for a grieving person. It is also ok to recognize that these are tough times and to remind them that they are not alone and that you think about them.

Make space for conversation

Be available to talk about the loss the individual experienced and how it impacts their life. Timing and authenticity are essential in this case. These conversations are likely not to best in public nor appropriate when you only have 2 minutes. Be ready to be emotionally available to the person and do not shy away from the tears.

Share a memory of your own about the person who has died. If you did not know them, ask an open-ended question about the person they lost. Resist the urge to ask personal details about how their loved ones died. These are often very painful moments, and there may be trauma associated with those memories. If they feel they can talk about it, they will bring up the topic and share on their own time.

Include them

Not all interactions with a grieving person are going to be sad. They also need a break from emotions. Giving the option to choose if they would like to join holiday events is a good way to respect the individuality of the grieving process. If they prefer not to celebrate, maybe try inviting them to do something they enjoy. The key is to keep options open. A grieving person might feel capable of going to the movies one day, and the next day it may seem impossible for them. Let them know that is normal and you are there when they are able.

Knowing how to help

It is likely that, at some point, you may say or do something that is not ideal for the grieving person. It is also likely that they know you are trying your best to be supportive. Let them know you are trying to be helpful. It is ok to acknowledge that sometimes you may not know what to do or say. Your grieving friend will appreciate honesty from you in this regard.

Enjoy your holidays

It is sometimes difficult to balance enjoying this special time while supporting a grieving person. However, try to enjoy yourself. Your grieving friend is hoping that you are able to do so. A person who loses someone close knows the value of sharing these moments with loved ones.

If you or someone you know are struggling with grief this holiday, please reach out to your EFAP for support. We are here to help.


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