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So Much Loss During the Holidays:  Managing Secondary Losses

So Much Loss During the Holidays: Managing Secondary Losses

by Julia Rajtar, BCC, M.A.P.S.


My husband would hang the up the Christmas lights outside the house.  Now the house is dark and so is my heart, since he died.  My wife and kids used to spend time baking the cookies, making a mess and having fun at the same time, and… even getting some holiday cookies baked in the process.  The kids no longer make cookies, the kitchen is quiet, and the store-bought cookies just don’t cut it.  When death happens, we experience other losses, in addition to the death of a loved one.  We experience a ripple effect of their death creating secondary losses.


Secondary loss is a physical or psychosocial loss that coincides with or develops as a consequence of an initial loss (Rando, 1994). With secondary loss it is helpful to recognize, validate, acknowledge and grieve each loss we experience.  If experiencing persistent physical issues, see a physician.  Grief is not a time-bound process that ends in detachment, closure is a myth.  Rather, we maintain connections with our deceased loved ones in various ways.  As we process the grief, we have less intense pain over time, yet the absence is always felt. Often persons function at similar (or sometimes better levels) than prior to the loss.  Over the years we may also experience “surges of grief”.   For instance, imagine a 6-year-old whose father dies and 20 years later she is walking down the isle without him, experiencing the surge pain that he is not there.


Holidays can be difficult because we may realize it is our last holiday with our loved one, when death is expected.  We begin anticipating the death of the person and not having them in our lives experiencing both grief and mourning.  We also find ourselves with a bag of mixed emotions, not wanting them to suffer yet not wanting to let them go.  The holiday also offers a time to express that life mattered for this person and we reminisce, both precious gifts at this time.  Holidays then, are traditionally difficult times, filled with memories that highlight our secondary losses, and with constant reminders of the ideal family holiday.  This time of the year also creates some anxiety and stress, in addition to the cold, darkness and loneliness.


Two strategies to avoid during this time of year is: 1. Keeping everything the same and, 2.  Escaping either physically or through substance abuse.  We cannot keep everything the same, by trying to do so, we set expectations that cannot be met, things are not the same.  Escaping, delays the acknowledging of grief, hiding from it, yet it is still with us.


What is left to help us through grief, what are some of our own strengths?  Consider things that have helped before.  Another idea is to make a list of the people around you, family, friends, neighbors, church members, etc.  Around each name place the letter L, D, and R’s.  L= listeners, those people who will listen and allow you to say, think and feel what you need.  D = doers, who are the people who help mow lawn, shovel snow, fix, cook, they are the helpers.  The R = respite.  Grief is hard work and we can’t grieve all day-long, it is too exhausting.  We need the R’s to help us be social, to go to the movies or out to dinner with us. They don’t want to talk about the grief, but can help in social events.  We need all three types of people in our lives after a death.


This holiday season, practice the 3 C’s.  Choose, Communicate, Compromise.  Choose what you want to do this holiday, where you want to be.  Do things a little differently.  New meanings can arise from the holiday such as making charitable donations in a loved one’s memory.  Identify what needs to be done and how will it get done, who will put up a tree, write the holiday cards.  Who will you be with and when will you leave.  The holiday is emotionally painful and exhausting.  Considering determining how long you will stay at a gathering, and let the people know.  If you want to stay longer than you originally considered, that’s fine too.  The bereaved ought to make the choice when they want to leave, not the others you are with.  Communicate these changes/wishes.  Compromise.


Be aware of children and their grief during the holidays.  There is a normal amount of “self-centeredness” of younger children, for them, consider the importance of the holiday.  Understand that adolescents and children may displace anger.  Consider creating rituals and memorials.  Acknowledge their losses and recognize the losses that they may experience through the holidays.


Some activities that can be helpful to children is creating memory boxes, a charitable or memorial activity such as planting a tree, donating, etc.  Perhaps make or wrap a gift for the deceased. Personal actions, such as baking cookies for nurses who cared for Grandma, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, inviting a lonely neighbor over for the holiday are other ideas.


How well parents function is a major predictor of how well children will do.  Parents, model your grief and coping, and take care of your child; do not expect them to take care of you.  If your tears come during gift opening, tell your children, “daddy would have loved watching you open this gift.”  Reach out to extended family and your intimate network for support.


Rituals during the holiday gathering to acknowledge your loved one are important and healing.  Spend a moment to acknowledge the deceased.  Consider making a toast, offer a prayer, make a mention, share a memory.  Children can decorate a place mat to use at the table to honor the life of those not with us.  The ritual of 4 candles invites sharing of 1 memory of the deceased as each candle is lit, provides meaning and unites us with our deceased loved ones, who are always in our hearts.  Consider that the first 3 ornaments hung on the tree each year are memorial ornaments.


People will say insensitive things to us as we grieve, especially during the holidays.  Perhaps consider how you felt when the insensitive thing was said, why it hurt, what did it mean, and how can you respond, as a technique to practice during this difficult time.


Especially during the holidays, be gentle with yourself, or give yourself a little grace.  Cope with the stress, take good care of yourself and accept that there will be tough times.



Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.

In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

Max Ehrmann




TAPS Institute for Hope and Healing webinar:  So Much Has Changed Managing Secondary Losses During the Holidays, Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, MDiv, Member TAPS Advisory Board Professor Emeritus, The College of New Rochelle, November 20, 2019.

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