It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Except When It’s Not

Helpful tips for when the holidays hurt

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and that evokes feelings of joy, excitement and warm memories…for what feels like the majority of those who celebrate the holiday season. And yet, there are countless individuals for whom this time of year is a painful reminder of what– or rather, of whom– they have lost.

In this month’s newsletter, we acknowledge a large number of people all around us whose feelings often go unexamined this time of year: those who are grieving. The holiday season can be hard to face for those who suffer loss, and we hope some of the following tips can help. And to all those who relate: may you find some solace and slivers of joy in the days ahead.


It’s OK That You’re Not OK

“Grief is not a problem to be solved; it’s an experience to be carried.” Author Megan Devine discusses loss as a universal experience, encourages readers to rethink grief, and provides readers tools to navigate it.

Product: Slumberkins Grief and Loss Toolbox

Slumberkins, a company founded by a special education teacher and family therapist, seeks to empower children with emotional tools to help them overcome obstacles and develop confidence. Each theme (of which there are many, including grief, change, gratitude self-acceptance, and so on) are represented by an adorable stuffed creature and a book providing a lesson on an important life skill.

Six Strategies to Cope with Holiday Grief…

…and advice to support those who mourn

Grief, no matter what time of year it strikes, is a powerfully tragic force. It is tumultuous and unyielding, and an extremely difficult emotion to process, no matter if lights shimmer on the tree or sunshine shimmers on the waters of a warm beach. Yet, grief around the holidays does tend to feel a bit sharper. Images of family gatherings are a painful reminder of the traditions that may have been dismantled following the death of a loved one; songs that elicit memories of past celebrations can trigger an aching sadness; even the smell of cookies baking in the oven can be debilitating to those suffering loss. But dodging these reminders is no easy task in today’s world.

“Cancel culture” may be rampant in today’s society, but it is unlikely to ever touch the cheerful demeanor of the holiday season. Nor should it; merriness is rarely malicious, and the world hardly needs to be told to tone down any form of joy. What can be done, however, is recognizing that holiday celebrations may look very different in the face of grief. Pushing an idea of what it “should” look like on yourself or on a family member or friend who is suffering may only cause more pain.

Author Vicki Harrison once wrote, “Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing.

Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” Similarly, a grieving person’s ability to participate in holiday traditions on any given day or any given year can change, and that is ok.

Release yourself of obligations

Past Christmases may have been filled with Santa visits, family and friend gatherings and holiday shows galore. You may still have a sense of obligation to attend these, especially if you’re harboring guilt about disappointing loved ones. But it’s also important to assess your readiness for events like these. While it would not be a healthy idea to isolate yourself completely this season, it is ok to modify your participation. Consider asking someone else to host, leaving an event early, or opting out of certain events altogether.

Don’t avoid your feelings

It may feel like you need to “suck it up” during the holidays and lessen or deny your grief for the sake of others. But shoving away negative feelings does not make them dissipate; they eventually need to be processed. Make space for yourself and your feelings, physically and mentally. Perhaps there is a quiet place in your home that you can retreat to when you need to process difficult emotions but don’t necessarily want to do so in front of others. You can also choose to share your feelings with others, so seek the support of those whom you can trust with your feelings.

Show guilt the door

Did you find yourself laughing at a family gathering and then instantly feeling guilt for experiencing a sense of joy? Did you dodge events that you and your family would normally do, while simultaneously feeling like you’re disappointing everyone? While all feelings are valid, guilt needs to go. Treat yourself with kindness, recognize that both positive and negative feelings can co-exist, and remind yourself that the violent waves of grief may get a little less rough over time.


Remembering Your Loved One

Ideas to incorporate a lost one’s memory this season

While nothing can replace the physical presence of someone you hold dear, a special remembrance can honor them and remind you of their love during a time you need it most. Some ideas can include:

Memory Box

Delegate a “memory box” for family and friends to contribute written memories, photos or objects that can be read and examined during your holiday celebration together. While it most certainly will elicit tears, it can be a powerfully poignant experience that may help make it easier to allow the presence of your loved one to join you.

Favorite Dishes

Another way to honor your loved one is to make a variety of dishes and desserts that they loved, and make it your holiday meal. Don’t worry about complementary tastes or cohesiveness! Family members and friends may even have a story behind each dish, opening up communication so that grief doesn’t get bottled up.

Light a Candle

A simple but meaningful way to honor a lost loved one is lighting a candle in their honor, and if appropriate, reciting a prayer or poem with other family members or friends during your get-together. Sometimes just a visual reminder of a shining light can help you feel that they’re right there beside you.

Honor your memories

Reflect on the role that your lost loved one played in your holiday celebrations, and find a way to honor them in private moments or at a gathering of those who also share fond memories. Did your grandma make a special dish that everyone enjoyed? Consider printing it on a recipe card, or getting her handwritten recipe etched on a cutting board or dish (check Etsy for some beautiful options). Did dad always read The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve night? Assign someone to take on that role, or display the book on the mantel or near a seat that he would sit in to read it.

Do something charitable

In lieu of a gift that you would normally give to someone you have lost, it may ease some pain to use that money to donate to a charity that you associate with your loved one. Similarly, contributing your time by volunteering at a local shelter or charitable association can help you see the power of a helping hand during hard times.

Ask for help

Extra emphasis for those in the back: You. Are. Not. Alone. This may be frustrating to read for many who are grieving who feel like the calls, texts, visits and casseroles began to dissipate shortly after the memorial service, as this can feel like abandonment. Rather than assuming friends and family no longer care about your situation and have lost interest in your needs, realize that many good-intentioned people feel like giving someone space to grieve is appropriate. And that may be. But for those that want less space and more…anything (e.g., help, chats, hugs, grocery runs, babysitting services, etc.), don’t be afraid to ask. Chances are, there are many people in your life that would jump at the chance to be there for you.

Advice to friends of those grieving…

With the holidays quickly approaching, it is not atypical for those who are grieving to experience feelings of anxiety, dread and despondency, especially if it’s the “first” after a loved one’s passing. It may be hard to understand what they’re going through, so consider the following guidelines:

  • Include them in all gatherings via invitation, but don’t push or guilt them if they turn it down.
  • Be as present as you can, even if it’s sending a simple message letting them know you’re thinking of them, or a funny gif that may bring a smile to their face.
  • Offer practical sources of help, such as offering to do some holiday shopping, wrapping gifts or watching their children.
  • Listen. And don’t offer advice unless it’s clear that it’s wanted.
  • Don’t disappear. One day you may want to lean on them in the way they need you now.

Content of this newsletter was written by:
Megan A. Miller, M.S., CCC-SLP

Please contact Megan with any questions or comments at: