Tips For Coping With Grief During The Holidays

If you have read my Thanksgiving post then you know that I have experienced the loss of several close family members.  I am only too aware of how difficult the holidays can be for someone who has lost a loved one.

A couple of weeks ago I received some correspondence from the Florida office of “Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”  Because my brother was killed by a drunk driver in 1997 I do receive the MADD magazine, but I don’t often receive correspondence from the local office.  It actually made me feel good, as if someone still remembered my loss.  Included with the letter was a “Holiday Coping Tips” sheet that gave me the idea for this post.  The following suggestions are taken from that sheet and my own experience.

Tips For Coping With Grief During The Holidays:

  • Take care of yourself.  Do not do anything simply because you feel obligated to.  My brother died in September so the Christmas holidays followed not far behind.  I was invited to a party by someone I knew from church and I felt like I “should” go, so I went.  It was a huge mistake.  I was not emotionally prepared to put on a party face and the experience was so emotionally draining that after the party I went home and slept for three hours.  I encourage you to be very judicious in the activities you decide to take part in.  Sometimes the toll it takes is simply not worth it.
  • Adjust your expectations and realize that some of your traditional family activities may bring more pain than joy.  Now might be a good time to institute some new family traditions which center on remembering your loved one in ways that are meaningful to you.  You might attend a candlelight remembrance service.  Or take on a volunteer activity in memory of your loved one.  Gather the family and discuss ideas so everyone feels that their feelings are validated and their ideas are welcome and important.
  • I want to repeat again: take care of yourself.  Grieving is an exhausting experience and it is a fact that those who are experiencing grief will have a depressed immune system.  Combine that with the fact that the holidays fall in the middle of the flu and cold season and you have a recipe for disaster.  As much as possible keep a regular schedule, eat well, exercise and try to get sufficient sleep.  This can be difficult for the grieving person as insomnia is a common problem (I have had problems with insomnia ever since my brother’s death).  If necessary, consider talking to your doctor about a sleep aid.
  • Planning ahead for the emotional distress that the holidays are likely to bring will help you to get through them.  And that is an important point: if you approach the holidays with the goal of getting through them as best as you can, rather than feeling guilty that you don’t feel the joy you use to feel, you will better navigate this difficult time and will find ways to remember your loved one that strengthen you rather than deplete you.

How You Can Help A Grieving Friend Handle The Holidays:

  • If you know someone who has lost a loved one you can be a great help to them in navigating the difficult holiday season.  The first thing I would recommend is something you shouldn’t do: don’t simply throw out a blanket offer such as, “If you need anything, call me.”  I can guarantee you, they won’t.  Instead, offer to take on a specific chore your friend might not feel up to.  For instance, call them up when you are heading out to the grocery store and ask if you can pick up a few items for them.  Offer to take their kids with yours to the movies so that they can have some alone time.  If you know they are dreading attending some holiday function that they would normally go to at this time of year, have the courage to tell them they don’t have to go!  Sometimes people just need permission.  It might be the best gift you can give them, permission to take care of themselves.
  • Please, please talk about their loved one!  One of the most absurd ideas people have about loss is whatever you do, you shouldn’t bring up the name of the person who has passed away.  The fact is, when someone is grieving their loved one is on their mind all the time, and when people tip-toe around and fail to mention them it is like they never existed!  My brother had a life-long best friend who lived behind us while we were growing up.  This guy is a natural comedian (he actually reminds me a lot of Jerry Seinfeld) and I love talking to him because he has so many great stories about my brother.  It is so wonderful to hear someone share their memories of my brother – I haven’t forgotten him and it is nice to know that others think of him too.
  • Give a gift to a charity in memory of their loved one.  I do this often when I hear of a friend who has lost a family member.  Don’t underestimate how much meaning this can have for your friend.  Most charities will send a note to your friend letting them know of the gift, or you can send a note yourself.
  • The last tip I would like to offer is that if you know anyone who has lost a child, I encourage you to contact The Compassionate Friends.  This organization exists to help families that have lost a child of any age.  It provides free resources not only for parents but for siblings and grandparents as well.  After my brother died, one of my cousins suggested The Compassionate Friends to my parents.  For many years my parents were involved in their local Compassionate Friends support group and I attended meetings and memorial services here in Tallahassee as well.

Those that are grieving during the holidays need our love and support.  I can attest that the holidays can be extraordinarily difficult to deal with when your feelings are raw from a recent loss.  Even years later the holidays can be a difficult time.  Think of someone you know who could use some compassion and sympathy and reach out to them with a phone call, a card, or a visit.  You will never know how much it means to them.

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  • MB

    I just lost my mom this year and my dad and brother previously. It’s a hard year. And I think the hardest thing for me is that people expect me to just be over it. It’s been 6 mos. since my mom died. It’s ridiculous, I think, to put a timeline on grief. My dad died over 20 years ago and I still miss him.

    Most recently, I have felt like people want me to be a people person – go socialize, hang around positive people, etc. While sometimes this is helpful, I’m not in a place to have the energy to endure periods of time with these people. I like what CS Lewis says about this very thing – “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” I definitely feel that way lately. I just have nothing to give. And I hope people will understand, but most of the time they do not. I like the suggestion to make new traditions. I feel like this is necessary like in my case, we used to go to my Moms on Christmas with our entire family. Now that isn’t there. I gotta find something different so it doesn’t feel empty. Thank you for the post.

    • Anonymous

      After my brother was killed I was so devastated that I read everything I could about grief, and especially about violent death. I remember reading one survey that said that people expect that, when you lose a close family member, it should take about 6 weeks to get over it. That’s WEEKS! Can you imagine?

      Another book I read, written by parents whose son was murdered, described how someone told their daughter who was (understandably) struggling with her brother’s death, “I don’t understand why you are still having problems with this, he was JUST your brother!”

      That is the reaction I had from people. They may not have said it in so many words but it was clear that people couldn’t understand why, months after my brother died, I could think of virtually nothing else. About a year after my brother died I was having anxiety attacks and so started going to a therapist. When I called to make my first appointment I specifically asked for someone who had experience with grief therapy. I went to this person for five or six weeks. Every time I left her office I felt terrible. Finally, during the last visit, I was talking about my mom and how depressed she was and this therapist said, “Well I don’t understand that because losing a child isn’t devastating.”

      If she didn’t think that losing a child is devastating she sure wasn’t going to think losing a brother counted for much. Now you know why that was my last visit to her.

      I tried getting counseling elsewhere too. I am sure there must be some counselors who know how to counsel grieving people but I sure didn’t find any. I finally gave up. A few years later I was reading an article about “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and realized that I had had every symptom listed there, after my brother died. I tried so hard to get help and not one “professional” saw what I was going through and helped.

      I not only lost my brother, but three years ago my 19-year old niece died in a traffic accident and two years ago my dad (who I was very close to) also died. I know what it is to experience multiple losses as well as the losses of those who died “before their time.”

      I tweeted something a few days ago that may help you. I was amazed that as I watched an episode of Stargate (a show that I virtually never watch) one of the characters was trying to comfort someone and he said, “Some things you never get over, you just move through it, and you do the best you can.”

      I personally get tired of the attitude in society that we can just choose to be happy. Yes, when dealing with the aggravations of daily life that is true. But when someone has lost a loved one, or has been raped, or has experienced some other traumatic event, it is heartless to expect people to just pick up and act like nothing happened. Our psyches experience trauma just as our bodies would if we were in an accident, and just like after some accidents people’s bodies never fully recover, some things, like the losses you and I have been through, do the kind of damage that can never completely be recovered from.

      Ultimately, like that character in Stargate said, you (and I) need to just do the best you can. You cannot worry about the expectations others have of you. One thing no one told me after my brother died was, “take care of yourself.” And I didn’t. And I ultimately developed a chronic illness that, even today, I was discussing with one of my doctors. She recommended some products that I am going to try that I am hoping will finally give me some help after ten years of fighting chronic fatigue. So that is why I emphasize above: take care of yourself! Because no one else really will. I hope that you will find some comfort from this and if you would like to contact me personally my e-mail is:

      • MB

        Hey Ann. I replied to you by email, but I liked that Stargate quote. My husband subjected me to hours of stargate. Funny, I don’t remember that one though.

        I have a counselor and thankfully, she doesn’t minimize my grief. The worst thing she has said to me is I probably won’t get better without meds, but she’s probably right. I’ve had low grade depression off and on for the last several years. It probably won’t get better until I get some energy and a lift in my mood. I don’t think it will cure me, but it might help. The holidays are the worst right now and I’m just trying to get past them. I just have to do the next thing. I can’t think about weeks from now at this point.

        Thanks for sharing your heart. I hope it helps others, not just me…but know that it did help me too. 🙂 Bless you!

    • Peacefulmare

      I lost my mother also 6 months ago and my brother six weeks later. My father also died 20 years ago so I understand the path that you travel. I agree “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me”. The days have been long and the months even longer I work hard to focus on my health because it is a stressful time. People do expect you to shake it off, but it is not that difficult. I heart goes out to you because I understand your grief.

      • MB

        Peacefulmare, sorry for your loss. I hope you were able to overcome the holidays. I was there, but I wasn’t there, if you know what I mean. Everything seemed so trivial and dumb. Some friends invited us over for xmas eve and everyone just fought about religion and then ended up leaving in a huff. I felt like yelling at them. At least they still had their families. What a way to ruin Christmas. And the holidays with my inlaws were not much better – talking about pop culture and how many gifts everyone got. I could care less. Anyway, this year would have maybe been better spent alone, but we’ll see. It’s hard to say. My kids enjoyed their times with family, so I guess that part was worth it in the end. Hang in there :). I know its easier said that done.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks for coming back and sharing. I am sorry your holidays were so difficult. We have no family near us so Christmas is just us (my husband and four children). It is nice and peaceful that way.

          It can be so hard to be dealing with grief and still feel those obligations that are not helpful to where you are at. I hope the next few days (weeks) give you a chance to just find some peace.

      • Anonymous

        I can’t tell you how sorry I am for your losses. Having experienced “multiple loss” my self I know how hard that is. And I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment, especially concerning such a difficult subject. However, you never know how much sharing your thoughts can help others.

        Good for you taking care of yourself. I wish someone had told me to do that. And as for what others expect of you…ignore it. Your grief is unique to you and NO ONE has the right to tell how you should grieve or how long it should take. I personally believe that there are some traumas you just don’t get over. Hang on and know that there are others who “get it.”

  • Angela Fisher

    What a very powerful post Anne. I am going to forward to those I thought of as I read it. I really love your site.

    • Anonymous


      Thanks for your kind words and also for sharing the post with others.  If going through the terrible grief I experienced and sharing the lessons I learned helps another then that is a blessing.  Our family has certainly been hit with tragic loss multiple times.  Lately our cousin Paul has been on my mind very much and I can’t help but cry, I miss him so.

      I hope your family has a very blessed holiday.  I think of you all often.