How to Navigate the Holidays After Loss

If you’re dealing with the death of a family member or loved one, the holidays can feel overwhelming. But there are ways to ease your pain, discomfort, and stress.

By Kimberly Zapata

While the holidays are meant to be a fun and festive time, some find the season difficult. For me, holiday lamentation sets in in August. I am full of angst and apprehension. Of sadness, emptiness, loneliness, and dread. But that is because I’ve lost four family members in the last two years. That is because I am without parents, grandparents, and numerous aunts and uncles. And that is because several “griefiversaries,” or death anniversaries, fall during the holidays. My father passed Thanksgiving week. My grandmother? Thanksgiving Eve. And for this reason, the holidays are difficult. I find this family-focused season to be exhausting.

“Grieving the loss of a loved one is a deep and difficult challenge at any time,” an article by AARP, the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated to empowering people to choose how they live as they age, states. “The holiday season can magnify our sense of loss and sorrow… [and] seasonal events can be painful reminders of the absence of loved ones.” In short, this time of year can be hard.

“[The] holidays can be stressful and exhausting, even in the best of times,” an article on Psychology Today adds. “[But] after the death of a loved one, [the] holidays may bring up more sadness, add more stress, and lead to more loneliness.”

So what can you do if you find yourself grieving this season, be it a recent or old loss? How can (and should) you manage the holidays after the death of a parent, partner, sibling, or child?

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Here are seven ways to navigate the holidays after the loss of a loved one.

Have Realistic Expectations

Whether you’re grieving or not, holiday stressors and pressures are real. Everyone wants a picture perfect Thanksgiving, for example, or cookie cutter Christmas. But trying to achieve perfection isn’t just detrimental, it is damning—especially when you’re grieving.

Do what you want to and, more importantly, what you can do. Ask for help, with preparations, outings, and meals. Tune out “the noise,” i.e. certain movies, music, TV shows, and stories may make your loss feel more profound. Step away if you are feeling overwhelmed. And know when to say “no.” Some years you may want to stick to tradition, for example, and other years are meant for making new memories. Both are okay.

Set and Uphold Boundaries

One of the best things you can do for yourself, whether you are grieving or not, is to set and uphold boundaries. These barriers, if you will, will help you preserve your physical, mental, social, and emotional health. They will also help you know when to say “no.”

Decide what activities you want to be part of, who you want to be with, and what you want to do. Decline invitations to parties, outings, and other events that don’t feel comfortable, or “right.” And know it’s always okay to walk away or change your mind. True friends and family members won’t judge you for taking care of you.

Plan Ahead

While the days and weeks leading up to a holiday may make you anxious, having a plan can help quell nerves. AARP says you should “plan comforting activities ahead of time so you have something to look forward to, rather than building up dread of the pain that the holiday could bring.” You should also plan an “out,” especially if you choose to celebrate elsewhere. “If you feel that it will be too much for you [to participate in a particular holiday tradition or even] and you’d like to simply opt out… let family and friends know.“

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Take Care of Your Basic Needs

Many people throw healthy eating and proper sleep out the window during the holidays, but it’s important to take care of your body and mind. Focus on the foods you’re eating, get plenty of rest, exercise, and do things which make you feel happy, healthy, and whole. Reading, for example, is a great activity as are warm baths.

Process Your Feelings

You’ve probably heard the expression that grief isn’t linear, and it’s true. There’s no process or timeline. Give yourself space and grace to recover. Cry when you need to. Laugh when you want to, and know that all of your feelings are valid. Just remember to listen to your gut. It will tell you where you are and what you need.

Be Kind to Yourself

While many people try to maintain normalcy around the holidays—for their kids, for example, or their own sanity and mind—it’s important that you be kind to yourself. Try not to take on more than you can handle. If you need to be alone, do so. Take up space and time, and know that there is no right or wrong approach. Do whatever feels right to you during this difficult time.

Get Support

Do you need help preparing dinner or, perhaps, someone to watch the kids? Would you like company or even a shoulder on which you can cry? Talk with your friends and loved ones about your emotions and your physical and mental health needs. “Be honest about how you’d like to do things this year,” adds AARP. “If you want to talk about those who have passed, then do so, and let others know it’s OK. If you participate in a holiday activity, let people know you may bow out quickly if it’s too much for you, and, if possible, have a friend on standby for support.”

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You may also want to speak with a mental health professional, particularly if you find your daily functioning is being impacted. Grief can be profound during the holidays, but a trained professional can help guide you through your feelings and the process.

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