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Another voice: Tips to help grievers get through the holidays

By Kenneth J. Doka

When you experience a loss, the holidays can be tough. Joyful memories often become centering moments in your life. You remember the Christmas you received that special gift, the Hanukkah when your spouse proposed or when the Thanksgiving turkey was ruined. As families gather in the coming weeks, it is easy to grieve those who are no longer here.

Reminders of your loss are everywhere. TV shows and movies acknowledge and celebrate families – focusing on reunions and reconciliations. Holiday cards from businesses or distant acquaintances may still be addressed to the person who died. Shopping may remind you of a past gift from the one who died or an ideal gift if the person was still alive.

While the holidays can be difficult, they will be easier if you make decisions on how you will spend them rather than drifting into painful situations. Here are eight tips to remember if you struggle with the holidays:

1.) Acknowledge the uniqueness of your grief. There is no “normal” in grief. If you are dreading the holidays, it is OK to acknowledge that. Yet realize that others may welcome the diversion and activity the holidays offer.

2.) Recognize that the holidays will not be the same. Sometimes it helps to do things a little differently, such as changing the place where you celebrate or going to a different church or temple.

3.) You cannot escape the holidays. You need to deal with the holidays on your terms.

4.) Assess your strengths. If you have dealt with loss before, what helped you then? What strengths do you have that can help you get through difficult periods?

5.) Choose, communicate and compromise. Select people and places that are comfortable with your grief – who will not be upset over an occasional tear and understand that you may need some time alone.

6.) Acknowledge your loss in the holidays. Select a time in your holiday where you recognize your loss. It may be as simple as a holiday toast or lighting a candle in memory.

7.) Be gentle with yourself. The holidays are stressful even when you are not grieving. Do you really need to send cards this year? Do things for yourself – whether a walk in the woods, a massage or even a quiet evening.

8.) Be gentle with others. Remember that any insensitive comments are rarely made of malice. Sometimes a simple acknowledgement like “Thank you, but it is a difficult time after the death” can suffice.

While the holidays can present difficult moments along the way, you can survive them and perhaps discover a different but renewed joy in the holidays.

Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., is a professor at the College of New Rochelle and senior consultant for the Hospice Foundation of America.