How to cope with grief during the holidays

Christmas Eve 2012 was dramatically different from how Sally Robertson, RN, BSN, OSF HealthCare Central Region Office expected it to go. Like previous years, Sally, her husband and their three children planned to celebrate with her mom, Pat Grimm, enjoying cheese soup and cherry pie.

However, when friends arrived at Pat’s house that afternoon to drive her to church she didn’t come to the door. They called Sally’s house. Her husband was home and rushed over. When he looked through the patio door, he saw Pat lying on the kitchen floor. An ambulance took her to OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center where doctors discovered that she’d had a massive stroke. She was paralyzed and couldn’t swallow. Sally knew her mom’s wishes and brought her home with hospice care. She passed away on January 7, 2013.

For Sally, the holidays present a sort of double whammy: not only does this time of year make her think of her mom and all of the traditions that they shared, it’s also the anniversary of when Pat suffered the stroke.

Three helpful strategies

Sally Robertson, RN, BSN, OSF HealthCare

Sally Robertson says new holiday traditions with her siblings helped her and her family deal with the loss of their mother.

It’s easy to feel like the holidays are supposed to be a joyful time, but for many people that’s simply not the case. This is especially true if you’ve recently lost a loved one. “The holidays often bring up lots of memories and traditions that you associate with that person so you feel their absence everywhere you turn,” said Linda Evans, R.N., L.P.C., C.T., Hospice Bereavement Coordinator with OSF Home Care Services. “Culturally, there’s this message that the holidays should be a time for joy and celebration, which can make grievers feel very conflicted.”

If you’ve lost a loved one, you may be wondering how you’re going to handle the holidays. Here are three suggestions that can make a difference in your experience:

1.  Opt out

“Give yourself permission to opt out of as much as you want,” said Teresa Marksity-Leach, L.C.S.W., Hospice Medical Social Worker and Hospice Bereavement Coordinator with OSF Home Care Services. “It doesn’t have to mean things are going to be that way forever, but you can choose to do something different this year. Opting out takes the pressure off.”

The Christmas after losing their mom, Sally and some of her siblings planned a big family trip to the Bahamas. “I’d never had a Christmas without my mom so I knew it was going to be tough without her,” Sally said. “Even though it was completely different, we were together on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We talked about my mom a lot. It really helped and I like to think she would’ve liked that we were together.”

2. Choose what you want to carry on.

Trying to replicate holiday traditions without your loved one can be challenging because, ultimately, it won’t be the same. “You can choose to keep some traditions and participate in different ones,” Evans said. “Instinctively, you’ll know what feels right for you.” For example, Sally’s mom used to bake cherry pies every Christmas and she continues carrying on that tradition. A new tradition could be a ritual that makes you feel more connected with the person that you lost. “It could be as simple as lighting a candle, placing a flower on the table, or observing a moment of silence or prayer,” Marksity-Leach said.

3. Take care of yourself.

It can be tempting to allow healthy habits to fall by the wayside this time of year. But taking care of yourself will make the season feel a little more manageable. Small steps like getting enough sleep, making healthy food choices, going for walks, connecting with people who support you, and minimizing alcohol can make a difference. Self-care may also mean saying “no” to invitations that don’t feel right for you right now.

Every journey is different

Every person experiences grief differently. “While the holidays can be very difficult for some people, others may appreciate the distractions that this time of year brings,” Evans said. “Grief work is about continuing the bond with the person you’ve lost, and everyone does that in different ways.”

Your experience during the holidays will likely change over time, too. “I don’t dread Christmas,” Sally said. “There will never be a Christmas that I don’t think about and miss my mom. But she loved Christmas and the best way I can honor her is cherishing the season with my family.”

Last Updated: April 22, 2022

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