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Dealing with Loss When the Holidays and Other Milestones Occur: A natural part of grieving

Publication Date: 
May 18, 2016

The signs of the holiday season might be everywhere: commercials on TV reminding us of the upcoming holidays and time for family and friends to reunite. Seasonal decorations for every holiday are in the stores; Christmas carols, and TV programs focusing on the perfect holiday to come.  Then come the birthdays and anniversaries and mother’s day and father’s day, etc. In many cases, this excitement of activity contrasts markedly with the emptiness and despair of grief after having lost someone in our lives. This loss might come from divorce, death or separation, or unresolved conflict. As one grieving person expressed it, “I wanted to fall asleep and wake up when each holiday was over, so the world could go back to normal and I could feel like everyone else.” Drawing primarily from my conversations with the bereaved, as well as managing my own losses, I want to describe commonly experienced difficulties and ideas that may be useful in dealing with them.

Dilemmas Associated with the Holiday Season

  • The Requirement to be Cheerful/Excited. There is an expectation during the holidays that people should be cheerful. One mourner explained that she hated going to holiday gatherings. “I could not be cheerful, and I did not want to bring other people down by being sad.”
  • Navigating through Social events. On many occasions, the innocent remarks of others may be too much for the mourner to hear at that moment. Examples of this are usually harmless, but the grieving hear things differently, more acutely than others.  Beginning a meal with a blessing may trigger emotion in the person who is grieving, “Thank you for bringing the whole family together.” Mourners can be thrown off guard by the remarks of complete strangers—for example, a store clerk saying, “I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday.” As one bereaved family member indicated, “You think of many responses, but you keep them to yourself.”
  • The Complexity of Decisions. Bereaved individuals must navigate a difficult path in deciding how to handle decisions about family activities and rituals. Do we follow the same practices that brought us comfort for so many years, or try to start something new in order to help us remember but move on?
  • The Ambush. During the holidays, mourners are often hit by powerful feelings that are evoked by some reminder of the loss. Consequently, mourners will face little ambushes such as, finding old Christmas ornaments, birthdays on the calendar, favorite songs and TV shows. These events, which are unexpected and unpredictable, are often referred to as “blindside reminders,” and “grief attacks.” Although natural and normal, such experiences are often frightening in their intensity. They literally can take the mourner’s breath away and bring about heart palpitations and other symptoms.

Suggestions to Help Manage These Dilemmas

  • Plan Ahead. Don’t allow the holidays to just happen. Also, try to use a Plan A/Plan B approach to the holidays. Plan A might involve spending Christmas or other holidays with relatives; Plan B might be having a simple dinner and watching a movie at home. Having a Plan B can be comforting even if you don’t use it. It can even start a new less intense family tradition.
  • Arrange a Family Meeting or a conference call to discuss how you would like to spend the holiday season. Let everyone in your family have a say, even the children.
  • Consider Changing Your Routine. If you always prepared the family meal, you may want to consider having dinner with relatives or friends. Or you may want to leave town altogether, heading for a cabin in the woods or an excursion to the mountains or the shore.
  • Manage Your Social Life. Although you may not feel like getting together with anyone, consider accepting a few invitations to be with close family or friends. Choose to be around people who make you feel comfortable and safe. Avoid social events that seem more like obligation.
  • Scale Back. Because grief robs us of our emotional and physical energy, consider cutting back on such holiday tasks as sending cards, baking, decorating, or putting up a tree. Some of these activities may be painful to execute in light of the loss. Let others know that you may not be able to do things that you have done in the past.
  • Be Gentle With Yourself. Accept that feelings of anguish are difficult to avoid during the holiday season. Do not expect too much of yourself, and recognize that you are doing the best you can.
  • Honor Your Loved One’s Memory. Some people have maintained that coming up with ways to do this can bring a positive focus to our grief. There are many ways to remember the person who died: share your favorite stories about him; light a candle in remembrance; make a donation in her name. You might also consider making a list of positive qualities that your loved one brought into the world. Another idea is to spend time working on a goal or value that was important to the deceased. If your father was very involved in providing warm clothes for children and families in winter, for example, you might volunteer your time to a group working towards coordinating resources, or consider making a donation to this cause.
  • Find People Who Will Provide Support. When people are already experiencing the great stress of grief, the additional strains of the holiday season can create distress that is almost unbearable. Thus, it is important to identify those relatives and friends whom you feel are good listeners, and share your feelings with them. It may also help to recruit support for specific tasks that are particularly difficult.
  • Consider Attending a Support Group or Therapy. At these times of the year, it can be particularly useful to interact with people who have experienced a loss that is similar to yours. Such individuals are likely to understand exactly what you are going through. In many cases, members will also be able to share strategies for dealing with the challenges of the holidays.

An excellent writer himself on Grief, B.D. Rosoft, shares “Wherever you are in the grief process… We know it’s hard—and we also know it gets less hard. The next time a special occasion, anniversary or holiday comes around you will feel a little more in control, a little less pained, the situation will be a little less difficult and you will begin to celebrate life again—one day.”

If you are experiencing difficulty in your grief process, please do not feel you have to go through this alone.  We at Village Counseling Center are equipped to come along side of you and help you on your journey.  Please call us. We would consider it a privilege to work with you.

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