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Grief & the holidays: Practical advice when you have experienced the loss of a loved one

When you’ve lost someone you love, the holidays can bring on a flood of grief. Even happy memories may hurt. All those cherished traditions can make your loved one’s absence feel more painful.

“Many people find that their grief intensifies during this time of year, because of that feeling of, ‘How am I supposed to have togetherness when someone so important is missing?’” says grief expert Sarah DeCosta, HopeHealth’s manager of grief support services.

If you’re grieving, here are tips to navigate the first few holiday seasons without your loved one.

> Are you coping with grief and loss? HopeHealth offers free, virtual grief support groups.

1. Acknowledge that this year will be different.

“Holidays have such an expectation of celebration and happiness. But be realistic. Let’s not pretend that this isn’t hard. Let’s not fake it till we make it here,” says Sarah. “Lean into your feelings of grief rather than pulling away from them. Because with grief comes love and acknowledgment.”

  • Be honest about your highs and lows, with yourself and with others. Resist the urge to simply act happy for the sake of, say, your kids or other family members. Being open about your grief is helpful for everyone, including children. “It models for your child that this is a healthy way to cope with grief,” says Sarah. “We acknowledge it. We honor it, and any feelings that come with it — even the sad ones.”
  • Talk to your loved one. “I encourage this year-round, not just during the holidays,” says Sarah. “Just tell your loved about what’s going on. Think about, What would they say? How did their voice sound? What catchphrase would they use? It’s not that we expect an answer. It’s to feel connected.”
  • Plan a new holiday tradition to honor your loved one. It can be something small, like hanging a new ornament in their honor, or cooking a recipe they loved. “Maybe you light a candle first thing in the morning, and just take a moment to yourself to think of your loved one,” says Sarah.

> Related: 6 ways to help you heal after the loss of a parent

2. Make a plan. And a back-up plan.

“With any day that you know is going to be difficult, whether that’s a holiday, a birthday or an anniversary, make a Plan A and a Plan B. Sometimes a Plan C, D and E too! But let’s start with A and B,” says Sarah.

Keep it simple. These plans don’t need to resemble what typically did when your loved one was alive. The goal is to get you through the day.

  • Plan A: The ambitious plan. “Plan A is the one that gets you dressed and out of the house,” says Sarah. Maybe that means going to one friend’s house for lunch, then coming home to relax. Or maybe you skip the big family dinner, but make an appearance for dessert.
  • Plan B: The back-up plan. “This is your ‘I can’t do this’ plan,” says Sarah, in case you wake up on the holiday and can’t handle Plan A. Have a back-up ready that’s low-key and home-based, and perhaps connects you with your loved one — like watching a movie you both liked, or going through a photo album. Here are ideas.
  • Plan C: It’s OK to cancel the holidays. The first Christmas after the death of her sister, Sarah’s family scrapped their usual traditions and took a trip to Florida instead. “That was different enough that we could handle it. We spent the holiday on the beach and forgot it was Christmas and you know what? That’s what we needed,” Sarah says.

3. When making plans with other family members who are grieving, keep this in mind.

Families and the holidays can be really complicated, period. Loss can complicate things further, because everyone grieves differently — which means that different people in your family may need different things.

  • Respect others’ needs. “If your family member wants something different from you, that’s not a bad thing. That doesn’t mean they’re grieving incorrectly or anyone’s grief is more important than someone else’s,” says Sarah.
  • Communicate your own needs. “It’s such a human reaction to just want people to know what we need. But the reality is, they don’t. They’re not mind readers. You need to say what you need,” says Sarah. If you’re having a hard time figuring out your own feelings, start with what you don’t want. For example: “I don’t know what I want to do for Thanksgiving. But I know I don’t want to host.”
  • Compromise. This looks different for everyone. Sometimes, it’s coming up with a simpler plan that everyone is OK with. Sometimes, it’s dividing and conquering. “A compromise can be saying, ‘I don’t have the capacity to go to that event, but I know you want to. Why don’t you go for a couple hours and I’ll stay here?’” says Sarah.

Start these conversations early. You’ll be able to think more clearly about what you need. You’ll also have plenty of time to work out compromises with family and friends, avoiding the dread of disappointing anyone on the day.

> Related: Holiday remembrance activities for grieving children

Stay open to what comes.

Your experience of grief will change over time, and so will your needs around the holidays.

  • Be flexible. What works this year may not sound right next year. Stay tuned into your feelings to find your way forward. “It’s OK if you want to go back to your tradition prior to your loved one’s death. It’s also OK if you never want to do the same thing again,” says Sarah. “It’s important to be flexible with yourself.”
  • Honor joy, too. “People often feel guilty experiencing any sort of joy in grief, especially on a holiday. But it’s still an emotion you’re able to experience — so allow yourself to do that,” says Sarah. “Allow yourself to feel your happiness, if it does come.”

May your holidays be filled with the comfort and support you need. And may it start with you.

Are you coping with grief and loss? Find a virtual grief support group or reach out at (888) 528-9077 or

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