Blog Post | Dec 19, 2021

12 Tips for Navigating the Holidays With Your Grief

By Susan Latta, LMFT, FT
By The Austin Hatcher Foundation
12 Tips for Navigating the Holidays With Your Grief

Take care of yourself.  You are important!!  

Grief is hard work, and it can be exhausting.  Adding the additional stress of the holidays can often feel overwhelming at best.  As you navigate your calendar of family times, obligations, and your list of “things to do”, make sure that you add “me time”. Create opportunities for you to take a breath and to do something that is JUST FOR YOU!  A good cup of coffee, conversation with a friend, walk, loving on your kids/ critters.  It does not have to cost money, but it is essential to take care of yourself to get through this time.

Talk about your feelings. Cry, laugh. Find people that will be able to hold your grief with care.  

Talking about grief with others can be difficult as we live in a world where death and grief is not often spoken about.  Finding a person or several people that will listen and not feel that they have to “fix you” can be very helpful.  Your grief is your journey, and no one will experience your thoughts, feelings, and grief just like you.  Allow yourself to share with those that can handle your tears as well as your laughter.

See the holidays in a series of small events instead of an endless stream of pain.  Take one event at a time.

Try to look at each event as it comes and to not look at the whole month of December or whatever time period.  By taking one event at a time, you are giving yourself an ability to focus on how you want to do that event and to pay attention to the feelings and reactions that you are having with whatever is going on for that event.  Looking at the whole season is overwhelming at best and can create a sense of paralysis that may not be helpful to you, your family, or your situation.  You more than likely will have some triggers throughout the holiday season.  Triggers are reminders of the person that has died.  They are often associated with our senses – things that you see, touch, taste, feel or hear.  You may hear the song Jingle Bells and start crying because that was your daughter’s favorite Christmas song.  You may create a gingerbread house and find yourself having many feelings of sadness as last Christmas you were making gingerbread houses with your daughter.  Name your triggers and know that they are a reminder of the love that you have shared with the person that died.  

Keep saying your loved one’s name in memories and stories.  Encourage other to say his/her name.  

Saying the name of the person that has died can be very soothing to the family member as there is often a sense that once someone has died, they are not spoken about again.  Use the name of the person that died in stories and in memories.  People will often wonder if it is okay to share stories and memories with the grieving family or parents, fearing that they will cry or become upset.  In all of my years of working with families, I have found that families LONG to hear their child’s or adult's name spoken and crave to hear stories or share memories. It is a gift to share with the bereaved.  

Say “yes” and give yourself permission to say “no” to events.  Know that you will change your mind and that is okay.

Trying to figure out what you have the energy for each day and each event can be taxing.  It is okay for you to have said yes to the Christmas concert, and, as the concert time approaches, you feel absolutely drained and know that going would be exhausting.  So you change your mind and decide to not attend.  That is okay.  That is you taking care of yourself.  On the other hand, you may have thought that going to the Christmas concert would be too much and too overwhelming, and you declined the invitation.  On the day of the concert, you decide that you are in a place where being with others and listening to Christmas music is something that you want to do, so you change your mind and attend.  That is okay as well.  Give yourself grace as you navigate this new world.  You will be changing your mind many times during this thing that is called grief.  It is inevitable!

Try keeping the holidays simple.

Scaling back with family events, holiday obligations, and your own internal “musts, should, and ought too” is very important.  Grief is exhausting and finding ways that you can do the holidays without all of the expectations is vitally important.  You may find that you decide to give gift cards that you purchase from one store as it is too much to go shopping and hearing Christmas music playing in the mall.  Give yourself the permission to “not do” and be okay with that decision.

Plan ahead.  Know what you want to do and are willing or able to do.  

Making plans ahead of time may help with the anxiety that you may be experiencing in the “not knowing if I can do this”.  Ask someone to help you figure out what plans feel doable and which ones feel more difficult to do.  Remember that you also have the right to change your plans if they do not feel right.  It is important to continue to honor your grief process, as there is no road map for your grief.  Give yourself grace as you navigate this new world.

Decide if you want to keep the same holiday traditions or change them out.

This is often a difficult decision for many people.  Some people and families will continue with their yearly traditions with the tree, meals, family gatherings, or attending their place of worship.  Keeping the same traditions may feel like a strong connection with the person who has died.  Other people and families know that doing the same traditions is not something that they can do this year, so they change it up.  Some will go on trips, and others will not decorate or do the decorations very differently.  Some will have presents for the person who died, and others could not even imagine buying presents for the person who died.  People and families do grief so differently, and the challenge is to allow yourself and family to figure out what is best for you during this time.  Next year may be different, or it may be the same.  

If you have children, ask them how they want to honor or remember their loved one.  

It is so important to allow the children to give input as to how they would like to remember the person who died through the holidays.  Children have some remarkable ideas.  I was working with an 8-year-old boy whose father died tragically, and he told me that he was wondering if they were going to hang his father’s stocking.  I asked him if he had an idea about his father’s stocking, and he shared that he wanted to put notes in his dad’s stocking throughout the month.  He shared that on Christmas morning that he would empty the stocking and read the notes.  I asked him if he had shared this with his mom, and he said no, so we found her, and she agreed to doing this for him.  On Christmas morning, the stocking was empty, and the notes were read.  One note said, “Hey dad, I got an A on my spelling test”.  There was not a dry eye in the room.  What a gift for this 8-year-old to have been heard and for him to continue to share with his dad about his life.

Talk about your loved one and see if you can find positive memories.

Sharing stories and memories are important as you navigate your journey of grief.  You will find that there are people that will be easier to share and reminisce with than others.  Seek those individuals or groups out and continue to use your loved ones name and the stories and memories that feel comfortable sharing.  I had a family that created a paper chain of memories of their loved one for their Christmas tree.  Each year, it is brought out and placed on the tree with the lights.  It is the only decoration on the tree.  The memories are read and reread each time the paper chain is brought out that it is kept in each year.  Some years, more memories are placed on the paper chain.  It has provided ongoing conversations and memories of who this individual was that has died and gives great comfort to his family.  

Do something for someone else in honor or memory of your loved one.  

People do many things to continue the legacy of their loved one.  I worked with a family that adopted another family with kids around the age of their daughter who died.  They bought gifts and wrapped presents and found that providing this family with some wonderful gifts helped with the pain that they were feeling of not having their daughter present for Christmas.  Another family volunteered for an organization in memory of their loved one.  This helped them feel connected to the person that died.

Remember that everyone in your family will grieve differently.  Needs will be different.  

One of the most difficult things that happen when a person dies is that everyone in the family will be grieving differently.  Moms grieve differently than dads, and siblings grieve differently than their parents.  Depending on the age of the child, and their understanding of death, as well as what they were told or not told about the death, all play a part in this new reality.  Families must now try to figure out who they are as a family.  It is important to remember that each person’s grief is unique to them, and everybody does grief differently.  Practice patience and grace throughout this journey.  Remember that you are not alone, and there are people and organizations that can help you navigate this new world of grief.