When the Holidays Mean Pain: Grieving During the Holiday Season

When the Holidays Mean Pain: Grieving During the Holiday Season

When the Holidays Mean Pain: Grieving During the Holiday Season

The holidays are right around the corner. How could we miss the reminders? Inserts of coupons for Halloween candy filling the Sunday newspaper. Noticeably increasing numbers of television commercials showing families gathered around tables laden with roasted turkeys, yams and cranberries. Christmas jingles piped over the sound system at the supermarket (in October).

For some people, this time of year brings a sense of lovely anticipation: of gifts and togetherness, delicious feasts and cheer.  But what about those of us who have lost a loved one?  How do we get through the season intact when reminders of family traditions surround us?

While these holiday cues may trigger anxiety when we’re struggling with a loss, we can use them to our advantage.  They are a good indicator that it’s time to put some thought into how we want to approach the season and gives us a chance to mindfully put a plan in place.

Here are some ways to mentally and emotionally prepare for the holidays:

  • Cultivate flexibilityYou are in a situation you wouldn’t have chosen to be in.  You didn’t imagine that things would be the way they are.  However, you have the ability to adapt to the reality of what is and do the best that you can do.  Keep in mind that anticipation of the holidays can be worse than the reality.
  • Manage your expectations.  Be easy on yourself.  You don’t have to pretend that you’re feeling 100% when it’s all you can do to get through the day.  Things are different now.   Your life has been altered and this is going to be an adjustment.  Well-meaning friends and family may try to distract you by keeping you busy.  If that sounds good, by all means, join in.  If not, allow yourself to say no to the invitations.
  • Enlist support.   During the holidays, memories of family togetherness are heightened.  Validate your feelings and find a way to express them.  Light a candle to honor your loved one.  Speak about your loss with an empathetic friend.  Seek out a support group or individual counseling as a safe space to share your burden.
  • Challenge the status quo.  Consider the rituals that have been a part of your family’s holiday traditions.  Have you always been the one in charge of baking dozens of homemade treats?  Perhaps you feel up to the task and it will bring you pleasure to go through the familiar motions.  If so, do it!  If the idea of spending hours on the kitchen sounds exhausting rather than rejuvenating, however, think about the “why” of the tradition and alter it as you see fit.
  • Check in with yourself.  Are you allowing yourself to experience moments of joy?  Or, do you feel like you are betraying the memory of your loved one if you feel happy?  Recognize this tendency towards guilt and give yourself permission to savor your lifted mood.

Be mindful of your mood during the holiday season.  Your emotions are a powerful tool that helps guide you and tells you when you’ve overextended yourself or pushed past your personal boundaries.  Remember to touch base with your feelings, validate them, and communicate them to others.  This is an important part of self-care.

Some questions to consider:

How do you care for yourself during the holidays?

What triggers can you identify in advance that might be challenging during the holidays?

Who can you turn to for support, and who might be difficult to be around?

Marnee Reiley is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern in Irvine, CA. Certified in Grief and Bereavement Counseling, Marnee is honored to work with couples, individuals, and families with adjustment to life transitions, communication, and healthy adaptation to loss and change. Please visit her website at www.YourOCTherapist.com to learn more.

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Molly grew up in and around funeral homes her entire life. In 2009 she began working for O'Connor Mortuary and found a bridge between her passion for writing and her interest in grief and bereavement. In 2016 she earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. She is honored to be able to write about these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.


  1. amy says:

    Thank you for your great blog. It is a great reminder for the upcoming holidays.

  2. Annie says:

    My father died on New Years Eve of 1996. The first few years were really hard. I could not and would not give myself permission to celebrate or be happy. I do now. Thank God.

  3. Hi Marnee –

    Wow this is a great blog post, full a really good practical information. The information you have shared can be used for everyday life. How we care for our selves, what triggers us to feel good or bad about our selves, who do you turn to when you need good advise or support. The holidays are such a great time, yet can be so fast paced and overwhelming. If you have been impacted by a death, that makes the season so difficult on top of all the expectations. For my self, I have been TRYING, to keep working out, eat well and get plenty of sleep. I have tried to pace my self and realize that I don’t have to be everything to everyone. I really appreciate your words of wisdom, they are a great reminder for all of us.

    Happy Holidays to you! XO

    • Dear Neil,

      Thank you so much for your reflections on this topic. I agree that self-care is crucial, be it while we are grieving, during the holidays, or any time. Changing our behavior (through better eating, exercise, and sleep) is fantastic, but so is the attention to our thoughts (such as your realization that you don’t have to be everything to everyone). Have a wonderful holiday season.

      All the best,

  4. Ms. Fran Cantor says:

    Hi Marnee,

    In your profession of Family Therapist must be very Emotional and SPIRITED and special Person
    to be able to Counsel Grieving Family’s. You must go thru some unexpected Situation and may God
    be present during these times. Your Advise has remind me what My Children & I went thru the first
    year of my Husband Death, or any Holidays. Must of the time I go thru motion but memories we had
    come thru and I SMILE and make a Toast Here to you My Dear. Then enjoy the Holiday’s I feel we all
    do things the only way each of us can MANAGE our BEREAVEMENT. Also I had join a group that really
    help me, they were Call the New Beginning ‘s and they turn out to be my very Good Friends, Bless you in all that you do. Thank you for our preperation that is coming.

    Very Best to You.

    Frannie +

    • Dear Frannie,

      Thank you so much for your heartfelt comments. It is true what you say: we all do employ different coping skills to be able to fluctuate between feeling our grief and having some respite. How fantastic that you found a group that you found supportive and helpful.

      Best wishes to you,

  5. Lori says:

    Hi Marnee,
    Thank you for this very informative and useful post.
    I few weeks ago I thought I would be using these tips to get through the first holiday season without my grandmother.
    Fortunately, she is at home and doing a little better. It is looking more like I will get to enjoy this beautiful season with her. It will be extra special!
    I will certainly reference your tips when the time comes.

    Thanks again,

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