How to weather the holidays without that special someone


By Jolene Currie, MDiv., Director of Bereavement Services

[Please see the Dec. Bridges newsletter here.]

Do any of these statements sound like anyone you know? "Who's going to carve the turkey this year now that Grandpa has died?" Or, "I don't have the energy or desire to shop, to decorate, or to be around others this year at Christmas." Or maybe, "I just want to erase Chanukah this year. I'll just feel too empty without my husband to celebrate."

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanza and New Year's Day are annual holidays that can be a very difficult time for people who have experienced the death a loved one. Author Andrea Gambill calls these events the The Holiday Army - stating they are no respecters of the heartbroken and emotionally wounded, and that their troops are merciless. They take no prisoners; they demand that we participate in their joy and nostalgia, or they will mow us down with their militant tanks of holiday spirit.

It is normal to experience feelings of intense loss and grief. Your feelings may be triggered by sights, sounds, smells and memories of better times. These periods of acute sadness are probably temporary and are a very natural part of the grieving process. So, be gentle with yourself; allow yourself to feel the sadness for a time. It is okay if you cry when you hear a song on the radio, or see something that pulls at your heart strings.

The first step in coping with grief at the holidays is to acknowledge that the first holiday season is difficult, and then to prepare for it in advance by making specific plans and obtaining the support you need. Set realistic expectations for yourself. Decide which traditions you want to keep, which ones you want to change, knowing that it is perfectly alright to eliminate or add new traditions or practices. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Share your plans with family and friends and let them know of any intended changes in your holiday routine.

Try to avoid "canceling" the holiday despite the temptation. It's OK to avoid some circumstances that you don't feel ready to handle, but don't isolate yourself; balance it with planned activities with others. Let others know your needs and how they might be helpful to you. Although you may be an independent person, this is a time to accept help. You may find out that family or friends may be quite happy to help out by shopping for you or with you, or do some of the cooking if that is what you choose.

Be mindful of your own health; get enough rest and healthy food. Setting aside a rest period or "time out" each day can be very beneficial. Allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, anger - allow yourself to grieve. Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one. Draw comfort from doing for others, but be sure to also take care of yourself. Perhaps create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your current situation. Give yourself permission to miss your loved one, and think about how you can integrate that love into living today. Here are some ideas. 

  • Create a memory box. You could fill it with photos of your loved one or written memory notes from family members and friends.
  • Light a candle in honor of your absent loved one.
  • Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree.
  • Dedicate one of the Chanukah candles in memory of your loved one. 
  • Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.

The most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season after the death of a loved one, and that the best way to cope with that first holiday season is to plan ahead, get support from others, and do what feels right for you. Just as we each grieve in a different way, we each will cope with the holidays in a different way.

For more resources on grief for both children and adults, visit 

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