Getting Through the Holidays When You're Grieving

The holidays can feel far from festive after a loss

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Liz Eddy

“Ok, what’s 3 times 3?”. Ah, a tricky one. My dad was quizzing me on times tables over the phone the night before he died. Even as his health was failing, he wanted to be sure I at least passed 4th grade math. He died between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which has made the holiday season bitter-sweet for most of my life. I’ve found that telling stories about my dad make him feel more present. 

I’m often asked “what works for you?” to lighten the feeling of grief at the holidays and all year round. I think the most important part of that question is the for you. It’s different for everyone and sometimes what didn’t work before works the next time and vice versa. Recalling my favorite stories—the ones that really showcase who my dad was—and sharing them out loud is how I feel his presence when I miss him most. I’ve made a habit of writing down my own stories in a notebook on the death anniversary as a way of sharing my life with my dad in return. 

Through my personal experience with loss and the learnings from my work at Crisis Text Line and then Lantern, I’ve seen a wide array of ways people navigate the holidays while grieving. 

Here are some that work for me:

  • Maintain traditions. My dad loved going to the same Christmas tree lot and diner every year. After he died, my mom and I continued the tradition. Doing this allowed us to feel connected to him while also creating new memories as a family. We also read the same book every year that he used to read to me. With COVID-19, I've decided to make pancakes while I decorate the tree as a nod to the many years of our diner tradition.
  • But also, introduce new traditions. While continuing traditions can bring a sense of closeness, it’s also ok to introduce new ones. You might consider including new people at the dinner table (or on Zoom), trying a new recipe, adding a movie night or playing a game. This is an opportunity to build new memories and mark a new chapter in your life. 
  • Be ok stepping away. Have a plan to excuse yourself should you need some time alone. You might not need it but just having a plan in place can make things feel less stressful. This also might mean skipping gift wrapping or decorating this year if it feels too heavy. For those able to attend holiday parties: this could be as simple as driving yourself to an event or ensuring the driver is willing to leave when you’re ready. 
  • Do something kind for someone else. This is age-old advice, and it’s something I swear by. Volunteering, making a donation, or simply helping a friend or neighbor can bring joy, even in the hardest times. I donate to Experience Camps, an organization supporting grieving kids and facing a huge waitlist during COVID-19.
  • Acknowledge that these emotions are normal. Embrace the range of emotions that come with grief, especially around the holidays. You might feel happy, angry, sad, excited [insert emotion here] at different points, or sometimes all at once. Know this is a part of the grief journey. Let yourself feel them all.

Originally published on November 20, 2019 on the Crisis Text Line blog and updated for COVID-19 on November 18, 2020.

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Categories: Grief, Managing a Death

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