Traditionally, the holidays are a time spent surrounded by loved ones. It is a time to celebrate the feeling of togetherness, the traditions and meanings behind the holidays, and the previous year(s). So what happens to the holiday and to the people celebrating when a loved one has passed away? A time that is generally filled with a sense of belonging, laughter, and joy is now experienced with a much more complicated mix of emotions and thoughts. “How can we celebrate and be happy when mom isn’t here to bake her cookies and pass out the presents like she has for our entire lives?” “How can I go to the New Year’s party when all I want to do is stay in bed?” “The holiday just won’t be the same without him.” Because the holidays are often spent with friends and family, this time can make the grief of losing a loved one significantly worse. The sense of loss, loneliness, emptiness, guilt, and/or anger can become magnified as those around you are continuing with the traditions as they have always done with those they care about while you are at a loss on how to move forward or even questioning whether you should move forward with the holidays. In addition, the memories associated with the holidays and with the lost loved one can come on stronger and more frequently given the increase in the emotions experienced during this time. Some may even feel that they are a victim to their emotions and these memories as they just increase the pain of the loss. This does not need to be the case, however. The holidays will not be the same as they have always been, but that does not mean that they need to be negative experiences.
Continuing with the tradition as it has always been done may not seem genuine or authentic as the feelings usually put behind the actions are no longer there or are different. If this is the case, there is no reason to participate in the holidays in the same way. New traditions can be developed to fit the new family or friend dynamics or something new can be tried as a way to put the usual traditions on “pause” until more time has passed and more healing has been done. This can be a healthy way of honoring your feelings and allowing yourself to grieve rather than “pretend” to feel something that you don’t.
Incorporating your loss into the tradition can also be a way to feel connected to the lost loved one while also continuing to participate in the holiday. This can be done a variety of different ways such as including pictures of the loved one around the home, saying a prayer/religious statement in memory of them, sharing memories of the person with friends and family members as a way to acknowledge happy times spent with the person and the shared experience of loss, visiting the grave or a favorite place of the person during the holidays, listening to or singing his or her favorite song, or include one of his or her favorite foods in the holiday spread. This can be especially important and helpful for children experiencing loss as they are able to acknowledge their feelings around others who are experiencing similar emotions and they are able to channel the thoughts and feelings into a healthy activity that can bring about new memories and sense of togetherness.
If going out to be with others feels like too much, one thing that can be helpful is to develop of a plan for what to do if you do not feel like you can participate in the way that would be expected by yourself or others. Plan A could be to participate in the holidays as you have always done. If that does not feel genuine or becomes too overwhelming, have a Plan B set up. Plan B could be to go to a movie or do something that would make you feel good and cared for (self-care is a necessity!), go to a place that was special to you and the loved one, or look at pictures of the loved one to bring about happy memories of times shared with them. It is perfectly okay to “cancel” the holidays and do something else in place of them! Do what feels best for you as you walk through the grief process. The holidays will return again and can be “un-paused” when the time feels right.
One thing that many people experience while grieving during the holidays is the feeling that the holidays will never be the same and they will never be able to be happy during this time again. It is important to know, however, that the feelings experienced now will not last forever. The holidays will certainly be different than they have been before, but different does not need to a bad thing. The pain will decrease as times goes on and if you focus on the love shared with the individual in the time that you had with them, the holidays can become a time of happy remembrance and love rather than a time of loss and heartache.