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Dealing with the cloud of holiday grief: 30 tips from experts to help you

For those whose loved ones have died, the cloud of holiday grief may loom on the horizon of the approaching season, a growing storm of uncertainty about dealing with all that lies ahead.

The first Christmas after Mom died, I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up on Christmas morning without her there. She lived in her own apartment at one end of our home for nearly a decade, and the daily gift of her presence is something I’m still learning to live without.

Mom was such a blessing.

So, that first painful year I just couldn’t celebrate in our home. The tree and all our decorations remained in the distant confines of the loft in the garage and we embraced different plans instead.

That was 2015, and I’m grateful that each year since has gotten a little easier. My husband and I have embraced new traditions, while maintaining those we continue to enjoy.

However, I think there will always be triggers that bring tears to my eyes—and even outright weeping if I’m caught off guard by a special memory that pops up out of nowhere.

And that’s okay with me.

Four people sitting in field with arms around each other.

You are not alone.

If you’re someone who’s dreading Christmas next week because a loved one is no longer with you, please know you’re not alone.

Many are learning to cope with their grief during this season of extremes—one of the most joyous and difficult times of the year.

Just breathe and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

While you should embrace the support of others, you should also discard expectations that aren’t a fit for you this year—and know that each season ahead will be different.

Be kind to yourself, patient with your needs, and remember that your loved one would want you to do what you feel is best for you.

Breathe text written against dark background

Expert tips for dealing with holiday grief

Tips from experts for dealing with holiday grief abound across the Web—such as those listed below. I think you’ll find some common themes within them.

I’m including a short excerpt that describes each tip, so please visit the linked site for the full description.

10 tips to deal with holiday grief from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP):

  1. Only do what feels right. “It’s up to you to decide which activities, traditions or events you can handle.”
  2. Accept your feelings — whatever they might be. “Everyone takes his or her own path in grief and mourning.”
  3. Call on your family and friends. “Talk with loved ones about your emotions. Be honest about how you’d like to do things this year.”
  4. Focus on the kids. “Many holidays place special attention on children, and it often helps to focus on their needs.”
  5. Plan ahead. “Create comforting activities in the weeks approaching a holiday so that you have something to look forward to rather than building up a dread of the pain the holiday could bring.”
  6. Scale back. “If the thought of many holiday activities feels painful, overwhelming or inappropriate this year, cutting back may help.”
  7. Give. “…in times of grief, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others.”
  8. Acknowledge those who have passed on. “When we are grieving a loss of someone very close to us, it can be helpful to participate in a related holiday ritual in his or her memory.”
  9. Do something different. “Acknowledge that things have changed; indeed, the holiday will not be the same as it was ever again.”
  10. Skip it. “If you feel that it will be too much for you and you’d like to simply opt out of participation in a holiday, let family and friends know. But plan alternative comforting activities for yourself and let someone know what you will be doing.”

9 tips to deal with holiday grief from Psychology Today

  1. Trust that grief is part of healing. “Time doesn’t heal the pain associated with a loss; it’s what you do with that time that matters.”
  2. Set healthy boundaries. “You certainly don’t have to force yourself to face every holiday event or celebratory tradition.”
  3. Focus on what you can control. “Think about what you can do to lessen the heartache when you can.”
  4. Plan ahead. “Often, the anticipation over how hard something is going to be is worse than the actual event. …Create a simple plan for how you’ll get through the holidays to avoid extending your anguish.”
  5. Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. “Allow yourself to feel those emotions without judging yourself…”
  6. Find a way to honor your memories. “Create a special way to memorialize the person you’ve lost.”
  7. Create new traditions. “It’s OK to get creative and do something a little out of the ordinary. You can also alter old traditions and make them fit better with the new phase in your life.”
  8. Do something kind for others. “Even when you’re in the midst of grief, you still have something to offer the world.”
  9. Ask for help. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re struggling with the holidays.”

6 tips to deal with holiday grief from VeryWell Health

  1. Offer yourself some grace. “One of the best things you can do is give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.”
  2. Be kind to yourself. “It’s important that you get the rest and nourishment you need and try not to take on more than you can handle.”
  3. Ask for and accept help. “The holiday season is no time to feign strength and independence when you’re grieving a death.”
  4. Find support. “Sharing your feelings is often the best way to get through them and finding people you can talk to will help.”
  5. Make a difference. “…helping improve the lives of others can help take the focus off your loss.”
  6. Stop making comparisons. “It’s easy to see other people or families enjoying holiday festivities and compare their experience to what you feel during this difficult time.”

5 tips to deal with holiday grief from Harvard Health

  1. Start a new tradition. “During a holiday dinner, place a lighted candle on the dinner table, leave an empty chair, or say a few words of remembrance.”
  2. Change the celebration. “Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal at home.”
  3. Express your needs. “People who are grieving may find it hard to participate in all the festivities or may need to let go of unsatisfying traditions.”
  4. Help someone else. “It may also help to volunteer through a charitable or religious organization.”
  5. Give yourself time. “The grieving process doesn’t neatly conclude at the six-month or one-year mark.”
The gift of holiday grief portrayed through lighted candles in the dark.

The gift of holiday grief

Dealing with holiday grief may feel overwhelming at times, but it can also be a gift.

After Mom died and I was struggling so, a friend who is an experienced bereavement counselor reminded me of this: the deeper the grief, the deeper the bond we shared with the loved one who is gone.

In some ways, I view my holiday grief similarly. The reason holidays can be painful is because I have so many wonderful holiday memories with my mom and dad. And I’m so grateful.

That being said, I also know they wouldn’t want me to remain stuck in my grief, as if doing so were a sign of my love. Instead, I know they’re celebrating with me as I heal year by year, creating new traditions from the foundation of wonderful memories they gave me.

For full descriptions of the tips from experts included here, please click on the following links:

Sue Montgomery is a Christian writer/content creator who's also been a hospice nurse, family caregiver, health coach, and professional organizer. Now she's helping Baby Boomers like herself embrace the Boomer Continuum™ of agile caregiving, graceful aging, and peaceful dying—with Christian faith and simplicity to focus on what matters most.
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