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It Doesn’t Seem to Matter this Year – Holidays and Grief

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

“Who cares this year? It hurts so much; how do you expect me to wear a smile during the holidays?” Who hasn’t felt this way as we approach a holiday, a birthday, or an anniversary? The memory of a special person who is no longer present with us during these significant family times generates a variety of reactions, some of which include not wanting to celebrate. It takes so much energy to wear that “smile” on the outside while on the inside, the tiredness, anxiousness, sorrow, and inability to focus, all take their toll. How do you cope with one of the happiest times of the year, when your heart is so broken, it may feel like it will never be whole again?

Holidays can feel overwhelming for those who are grieving. Decorating, writing a card or a letter, baking or preparing special meals, much less going out and shopping, can all be too much. It’s okay not to be okay. It can feel impossible trying to be merry and bright and it’s okay that you are not. It is also okay to try to take a break from the pain and sadness, even if just a little bit. Seek ways to dose your grief and try to have minutes, moments of some joy even amidst the pain.

Making a Plan For the Holiday

For the bereaved, holidays bring a variety of emotions, thoughts and feelings colliding with deeply held traditions. Some will want to remember and honor the deceased as we gather together. Some may not be able to gather in a large group at all as it’s too painful yet. And some may offer a toast to the loved one, offer a prayer for them, or make an ornament to hang on the tree or a wreath for the cemetery.  

Whatever you do, do not try to avoid the holiday. The day will come; the calendar does not stop. Having some conversations and/or preparation for this day, whatever it is you may want it to be like this year, can make the day a little less lonely and isolating. Gathering in smaller groups works for some. Others have said they will honor their own needs by informing the host that when they are ready to leave (which will be well before the gathering has concluded), to respect that desire and not feel bad. Being with a group and leaving early honors the need for being with others and needing private time and space. Our heads know we cannot hold the holiday precisely as it was, although our hearts want to turn back the clock. Our deceased loved one is present now in a different way. How will you and your family honor your needs to grieve and celebrate?

Honor Your Loved One

There are many ways to honor your loved one during the holiday. The bereaved frequently share that one of the most significant ways to support them and honor the deceased is to say the name of the person who died. Family, supporters, and friends hesitate, refraining from saying the person’s name, feeling like we will cause the dam to burst and the floodgates to open. In reality, controlling those floodgates takes a lot of energy, and a controlled release occurs when grief is shared. Ken Doka, PhD, suggested, “..break the conspiracy of silence and offer opportunities to share memories, stories, and grief.” Ease the pain a little. We can’t take the pain away, nor should we. We can honor that pain and create a space for it. With the family, honor that life, remember together, and say their name. Celebrating the holidays may feel like it doesn’t matter, while at the same time, it also feels like it does.

Love shared throughout life does not end with death. Continue to love one another.

Seek ways to hold and carry with you, your love for the one who has died.

Coping through the Holidays – other resources

Heather Stang, 2023, article Grief-Sensitive Winter Holiday Planner: Free Download To Help You Cope, [online], Mindfulness & Grief Institute.

Litsa Williams, Dec. 2, 2013, 64 Tips for Coping with Grief at the Holidays, [online], Whatsyourgrief.

Kenneth J Doka, Ph.D. MDiv, 2012, Three Cs for Coping with Grief, [online], Developed from Journeys with Grief: A Collection of Articles about Love, Life and Loss, Hospice Foundation of America.

1Kenneth J. Doka Ph.D. MDiv, “Coping with the holidays,” Journeys, A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement, November 2023 Issue, p1&4.

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