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
Hello! I'm Molly and I run & manage the Blog here at O'Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who's deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try. Work at O'Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective. I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.


  1. Jeff says:

    Hello Marnee,

    Wow! What great advise all the way through. Each of these recommendations are so practical and would be effective for so many of us at different times and places as we journey into the holidays whether it is a long past or recent death we are encountering during this season. Thank you so much for this. I will be asking our staff to share this with the families we are serving during this holiday season. I know it will help many of the grieving souls we meet each and every day.

    Thank you for your wisdom and insight into this harsh and foreign land of grief. It seems somehow more cruel at this time of year. I suppose no matter when the death occurred in the year, the first time we enter significant events where the absence is palpable, these words of yours ring true.

    Blessings upon you for sharing this,


    • Dear Jeff,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. In times of grief, support can be crucial. I regularly hear from people who are grieving that they are surprised at where that support comes from. We might assume that it would be from our closest family and friends, but it can often be found in those not within our inner circle. Your staff is one such support to those facing loss and I appreciate your care and compassion.

      All the best,

  2. Anne Collins says:

    Thanks, Marnie for your insights. We all have losses, some are more deeply felt, especially when the separation happened during the holidays or that one was such an integral part of our celebratory memories. I lost both parents very young. My first Christmas without them at 5 is indelible.
    Flexibility and survival came early for me.
    I again love the holidays, mostly the giving. I would like to give something to everyone I know. Of course, I can’t and don’t, but it is in my heart specially on that day. I want everyone to feel loved and nurtured in my world and to make a new memory every time.
    Thanks for your wise words

    • Dear Anne,

      What an incredible loss you had to endure at such a young age. It is evidence of the flexibility and survival that you mentioned that you are able to, once again, enjoy the holidays. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and providing hope!

      All the best,

  3. Marnee,
    I love the permission & validation that you encourage people to have with their feelings. I know for myself that I expected to be over my grandfather’s death after a few years but when last Christmas came marking the 5 year anniversary I found myself grieving and even confessed to someone I thought I was “over it”. Fortunately, the person I confided in was wise enough to say that we never really get over these things, he affirmed that I wasn’t being overly emotional or doing anything wrong in my grieving process, these emotions pop-up when we don’t expect them and that’s just the way it is.

    Thank you for writing such a beautiful, supportive & comforting post on how to deal with these feelings, anxieties and hardships. I will be keeping this post in mind for years to come & am so grateful to be blessed by your wisdom & understanding.

    Thank you, Marnee!

    • Dear Molly,

      Thank you so much for sharing your feelings about your grief over the loss of your grandfather. How wonderful that you had someone to normalize your process for you and to “give you permission” to feel whatever feelings came up for you. You mentioned that you were surprised by the wave of emotion at the 5th anniversary date; anniversaries are often even more difficult. Sometimes, we don’t even realize it’s an anniversary in a conscious way, but find ourselves feeling down and only later realize the connection.

      Thank you again for your comments.


  4. Carrie Bayer says:

    Marnee, thank you for such a wonderful piece on how to get thru the holidays when you are grieving. This is very helpful to me because I am far from my family & can’t see them on most holidays. I use the distraction technique to get thru it- I have amazing friends & my work family at O’Connor that help me feel festive & a part of something bigger than just me. Thank you! Carrie

    • Dear Carrie,

      Thank you so much for your nice comments. How wonderful that you have a strong network of friends and co-workers to lean on for support. And congratulations for recognizing that despite the distance from your family, there are ways to adjust to (and even enjoy!) non-traditional holidays.


  5. Kim Stacey says:

    Well written, Marnee. I think the holidays can be deceivingly difficult, even for those who have only lost family members due to indifference or being “disowned” (as I have been). For me, it’s all about “managing my expectations”. (Repeat after me, “No, my father won’t call me.”) Recognizing the reality of the situation is very empowering, and liberating. Instead of waiting in hope for the phone to ring, I can put my attention where it’s appreciated: my two young adult sons, and my delightfully-challenging ex-husband!

    • Dear Kim,

      Thank you so much for your comment on the blog post. I agree with your statement that the holidays can be deceivingly difficult. It seems that many assumptions are made on the part of others; they may assume that we are awaiting this season in joyous anticipation, as they are. However, there are often hidden losses such as emotional “cut-offs” from loved ones as you described. Thank you for shining a light on this ambiguous loss that is often grieved just as a death may be.


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