It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but the winter holidays can feel like anything but for someone who’s grieving.
The holidays are often steeped in tradition—dad’s famous casserole, grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, or the sparkle in a child’s eyes as they open their gifts.
If you’ve recently lost a loved one, these traditions may be hard to face without them.
On top of that, people who’ll be sitting at the same holiday table may disagree over how to handle those special traditions without the loved one this year.
That can add to the stress and pain.
Though you can’t always predict how you’ll feel in certain situations, being prepared for challenges, feelings, and conversations can make navigating grief during the holidays a bit easier.
Read on for insights into navigating these common challenges when grieving during the holidays.
Even though the holidays aren’t fun for everyone, whether they’ve experienced a loss or not, people can feel pressured to act like they are.
This expectation can be more challenging if you’re coping with loss.
“There’s so much pressure and expectation around the holiday season even without grief,” says Megan Devine, psychotherapist, podcast host, author, and grief advocate. “When we add grief to it, we’ve got to talk about how to get through it, survive it, and take care of each other. It can make a really rough situation worse if we’re not talking about it.”
Still, starting conversations can be challenging, and Devine says this may particularly be the case if families and friend groups are known to bury feelings.
“There’s the dread of how other people are going to be or treat you, whether they’re going to expect you to be sad or fine,” Devine says.
These expectations can be especially difficult if young children who just lost a parent or beloved grandparent are involved.
“People may think, ‘We have to make this the best holiday ever for them,’” Devine says.
In reality, this expectation can feel invalidating. It can also have the opposite effect and add unnecessary pressure.
There will also be challenges and conversations about traditions and honoring the person. If mom made a stellar apple pie, is it appropriate for someone else to do it?
“Everybody gets to express their grief in the way it feels correct to them, and that [may]…be uncomfortable for other people and cause friction,” says Devine.
Grief may drudge up old conflicts
There may be conflicts over how to grieve, including what people feel comfortable talking about. On top of that, grief may magnify already-existing conflicts.
“Feelings flare up when grief is involved, but there can be things that have been simmering for a long time,” Devine says.
For example, let’s say you had a competitive relationship with a sibling. In the wake of your loss, you have a fight over who gets to host the holiday dinner your deceased loved one used to host.
This could simply be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Dealing with invisible grief
Grief may flare up even when a loved one passed away a long time ago. Grief can also be present even if you weren’t “that close” to the person who died.
Those who choose not to express their grief may be seen as others as perfectly OK.
People with unseen hardships, such as pregnancy loss or a recent diagnosis with a chronic condition, may feel looked over.
“It can feel like, ‘I’m going to enter an environment where my loss won’t even be acknowledged,’” Devine says.
When you don’t feel like celebrating
The reality is that people may not feel like celebrating at all.
A 2021 survey of 2,000 U.S. adults indicated that 36 percent of respondents didn’t want to celebrate the holidays because of feelings of grief or loss.
Devine says she was never a fan of big holiday celebrations. When her husband was alive, she shares, they’d often choose to stay home just the two of them. When he passed, she suddenly lost that buffer.
“I was expected to show up at family events and be involved,” Devine says. “It’s that double whammy of, ‘I’m alone, and now I have to do these things because I…don’t have my united front.’”
When you want to celebrate anyway
On the other hand, some people may not dread the holidays, even if it’s the first without a friend or loved one. That’s OK, too.
“Just because somebody feels OK about the holiday season doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving,” Devine says. “Maybe someone is excited about the holiday season because they get to connect with their extended family who they haven’t seen all year. There’s the idea that grief looks one way, and if you’re not feeling that way, you can feel like you’re failing.”
Grief exists on a spectrum
In short, there’s a whole spectrum of possible ways to feel and deal with grief, and they don’t have to match anyone else’s experience or expectations.
Devine says it’s best to keep communication and respect front of mind when navigating grief during the holiday season.
Not all conversations and situations will be comfortable, though. In these difficult moments, she emphasizes it’s important to have boundaries and coping mechanisms in place in advance.
You may believe you know your sister or best friend better than anyone and therefore can give them exactly what they need during a challenging time.
However, they may be feeling a different way than you expect.
“We assume that either somebody is over it or devastated,” Devine says. You always want to check first.”
For example, Devine suggests saying to a cousin who recently lost a father, “The holidays are coming up. It’s the first holiday season without your dad. How are you feeling?”
“It lets the person lead,” Devine says.
Start talking early
Devine advises against waiting until the day before a holiday gathering to discuss how you want to handle traditions or honoring the person’s memory.
“It’s OK to preemptively be like, ‘We’re heading into the holiday season. What are some traditions you want to do? I have some that feel interesting to me or horrifying to me, and I would love to talk about it,’” Devine says.
Devine says this opens the door for conversations to happen early so everyone can be on the same page when the big day arrives.
People who love one another can have different needs and boundaries.
Your sister may want to bake Mom’s apple pie, but you may want to skip the tradition altogether. Devine stresses that it’s important to try to understand one another, even if it means agreeing to disagree.
Your sister isn’t morbid for wanting to bake the pie. It just makes her feel closer to your mother.
“Respect that other people are going to want things that don’t match what you want or need,” Devine says. “You’re not looking for consensus, because consensus will not happen…it’s about how many needs we can represent at the table during the holiday.”
If there’s a difference, you can say, “I’m so glad that feels good for you. That doesn’t feel right to me, so I don’t want to be a part of it.”
In the case of apple pie, you may choose to leave before dessert.
In a best-case scenario, everyone would respect this decision.
Of course, in reality, relationships are complicated. Sometimes you have to weigh whether skipping out on dessert will offend a family member so much that it’s worse than just sitting through those 30 minutes.
“If you do decide to go to something, have a [plan] about how you’re going to support yourself,” Devine says.
“You’re not looking for consensus, because consensus will not happen…it’s about how many needs we can represent at the table during the holiday.”
—Megan Devine, @refugeingrief
Have an endpoint
One way to support yourself through something you decide to do out of obligation to others is to set a deadline.
“Say, ‘“I am going to stay until 9:00, and then I have this reason to leave,’” Devine says.
Think about it: A common refrain we hear from workout instructors is, “You can do anything for one minute.”
Devine says the same concept applies to getting through a holiday dinner when you wanted to stay home.
“We can survive stressful things if we know the endpoint,” she says.
Bring an object to anchor yourself
Devine recommends bringing a tangible object that reminds you of your life outside of the event you’re attending. It can act as an anchor when things feel difficult.
Perhaps it’s the necklace you wore when you nailed a work presentation or a shawl a close friend gave you.
You’re going to return to your partner, children, colleagues, or friends at some point after this event—some scenario where you feel seen, appreciated, and heard.
“There’s something very grounding about [having] something you can hold onto to remind you that it does actually end,” Devine says.
Consider it like a teddy bear.
A 2020 study found that transitional objects provide security and symbolic connection with valued others when separated from them.
Take a break
Plan to step away from the group every once in a while. Devine says this might mean heading to the bathroom,even if people wonder why, or going outside for fresh air.
During this time, she suggests texting a friend or practice a breathing exercise.
A 2022 review suggested that breathwork was one way to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress.
Know your warning signs
Devine says the idea that someone “just snapped” is a misnomer.
“Outbursts don’t just happen,” she says.
Going off on a relative is often the result of more than a day’s worth of difficult comments—or a years-long conflict you’ve had with them. These issues can be compounded by grief and lack of communication.
Even if you do communicate needs and boundaries, there’s a chance they may get crossed. This may be upsetting. Trying to catch your feelings early can prevent an outburst.
Warning signs that your emotions are rising may include feeling tense, grinding teeth, an elevated heart rate, or heavier breathing.
Devine suggests you don’t wait when you notice these signs—take that break, or turn to someone you trust for support.
She also recommends considering this tip even if you’re excited about the gathering, as sometimes things can take a turn.
Honor your loved one together and individually
Devine suggests asking yourself, “What would honoring their life or absence look like?”
“There is no wrong way to honor or remember someone,” she says. “That gives people an opportunity to come up with things because they get stuck in, ‘I have to do it right.’”
Try doing something to make you feel closer to the person. Some ideas include:
- displaying a photograph where everyone can see it
- an empty seat at the table
- a moment of silence before a meal
- donations made in your loved one’s name
- volunteering somewhere that would mean something to them
- great creative with personalized ideas
“You can say, ‘Dad really loved hot dogs. It would be really cool to have hot dogs be dinner,” Devine says.
Devine knows a family who handed out their deceased father’s ties to their holiday guests. The guests were then asked to make something with the tie as a gift to someone else. It was like a fun twist on a White Elephant gift exchange.
“That’s a really funny and creative way to play with it,” Devine says. “It’s OK to be creative and playful instead of somber.”
Though you may feel like the only one struggling, Devine says you’re not alone. There are several resources available when you need additional support.
- grief therapy or counseling can provide personalized support
- Grief Coach offers text-based assistance for grieving people and their friends
- The Center for Prolonged Grief offers resources and a therapist directory.
- grieving communities, such as Facebook groups for pregnancy loss or widows
- “Here After” is a podcast hosted by Devine
- “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a podcast hosted by Nora McInerny that often touches on holiday challenges each fall and winter
- “Set Boundaries, Find Peace” is a book by Nedra Glover Tawwab
- “It’s OK That You’re Not OK” is a book by Devine on accepting your form of grief
- “How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed” is a journal with exercises for grief by Devine
- This list from The Strategist has some suggestions for children’s books about grief
Still, Devine emphasizes that the biggest resource is yourself.
“Check in with yourself and ask what you need, because the answers are not always outside,” Devine says. “Ask yourself what you’re feeling, what you need, and what a good holiday season would look like for you.”
The holidays aren’t always sparkle, shine, and happiness, particularly if you’re grieving.
You can give yourself permission to approach the holidays differently in light of a loss, even when others have expectations of you. When other family members or friends are involved, communication, respect, and compromise are critical.
Resources like therapy, podcasts, and books can be helpful.
Overall, remember: Only you can decide what’s best for you, and you’re allowed to do just that.
Ready for a calm and stress-free holiday? Check out Healthline’s Season of Self-Care, your go-to destination for the latest must-have health and wellness gifts for your loved ones – and you!
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.