Coping with the Holidays

Holidays! They can be the most joyous or the most painful days of the year, depending on how, and if, you're prepared for them.

Holidays are especially difficult if you've recently lost another person through death. By planning ahead, however, and dealing realistically with your holiday expectations, you can help ensure your days are filled with peaceful satisfaction rather than painful sadness. Holidays aren't just "something to be gotten through." They should be a time for reflection and rejuvenation.

Whether this holiday season is the first or the 40th you've faced since losing a loved one, there are some special considerations you need to think about while making your holiday plans. The first years after the loss of a loved one are the most difficult, and it is these days on which this article focuses.

Notice in the sentence above, it says: "the first years" are the most difficult. Not the first hours, the first days, or the first months, but the first years.

It is important for you to realize that your loss is going to require an adjustment in your life.

This is especially true around the holidays.

Traditions may change, the amount of entertaining you do will likely be altered, and your celebrations may be somewhat tempered.

Before reading any further, it is important to accept and admit this to yourself. If you can do this, you are halfway to the point of being able to enjoy peaceful and pain-free holidays. 


Initially, the most difficult part about facing a holiday, or an entire holiday season, is the fear about how awful the day is going to be. Often, the anticipation prior to the event is worse than the event itself due to the worry about surviving the occasion. Looking ahead and imagining what the day will be like tends to intensify any feelings of grief because we're reminded of the lost loved one. Holidays also are a means of marking the passage of time, and that too can be a painful reminder.

Writing down your fears in advance of a holiday will help you express your feelings. When writing, be entirely honest with yourself; it will help you gain control over your feelings. Clarifying your thoughts will help you feel less overwhelmed, especially when you begin to view the holiday as made up of small events rather than endless commitments and demands.

"I thought I was doing much better. The pain had subsided; I could laugh again. I was beginning to spend time with friends. My eating and sleeping patterns were back to normal. Then, I had to face my first holiday without him. I felt the familiar effects of grief wash over me and it was like the healing process had never begun."

 - Anonymous


You may find that getting in the "holiday spirit" is difficult for you this year. That's okay. If you're not ready to celebrate this year, don't. If you have small children, however, you'll need to discuss any holiday changes with them so that they don't feel punished or confused. If they are also suffering from a loss, a traditional family celebration might be good for them. Chances are, even if you don't feel up to it, you'll be able to count on family members to help make the holiday as "normal" as possible for your children. If you need help, discuss it in advance with members of your family so that the day will run smoothly.

Decorating for the holidays, although it may seem like more work than it is worth, will bring warmth into your home and should not be avoided. If decorating seems overwhelming to you, let your children, other family members, neighbors or friends help you. They'll provide valuable companionship and help make the project a special event rather than a chore. Once the decorating is done, you'll be happy to have the seasonal reminder that life is continuing and so must you.

If you find yourself alone for the holidays, take advantage of the time and pamper yourself. Get a book you've wanted to read, write letters that are overdue, treat yourself to a special meal, or call a friend who may also be alone. Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely, and you may find you enjoy the time to think and reflect. If you know in advance that you don't want to be by yourself, plan not to be. It may mean calling family or friends and suggesting a special holiday activity, but it is a way for you to let them know you'd like to spend time with them. Fellowship with others often is the best medicine for a grieving heart.


Actively participating in holiday activities, instead of thinking about what used to be, is a good way to begin your "holiday healing." By planning ahead, you'll have a grasp of what you do and do not want to do. This will prevent you from having to make decisions under pressure and give you the strength to say no if necessary. Also, by being well-organized, you'll enable yourself to limit the amount of activity you plan while using your time most efficiently during the holiday(s). You'll be able to build "quiet time" into your schedule without resenting having too much to do in a short period of time.

Holidays are naturally demanding—whether you've lost a loved one or not. They usually require entertaining or being entertained, shopping, commitments to spend time with family and friends, extra housework and cooking, etc.

If you're invited to do something you'd rather not do, be tentative in giving your answer. An honest but brief explanation of how you've been feeling lately will be understood and will allow you flexibility. Simply tell your host or hostess that some days are better than others since your loss, and if you're feeling up to it, you'd love to attend. This way, no firm commitment has been made, yet you still have the opportunity to enjoy the company of friends if you desire. This allows you to observe realistic limits in your routine.


Regardless of how many commitments you have over the holidays, the most important thing to remember is to keep things simple. Say no to invitations you'd rather not accept, and don't be afraid to express your feelings. If you want to cry, do. If you need to talk about how you are feeling, do. If you want to be alone, it's okay as long as you continue to reach out to others on occasion.

Above all, take the time necessary to be in touch with your feelings and expectations and react accordingly. If you do, you'll find you're actually enjoying the holidays rather than just coping with them.

Ways To Enjoy the Holidays

  • Make or bake all your holiday gifts.
  • Shop online or by catalog in order to avoid the holiday rush.
  • Contact a local college or foreign student center. Invite a few students to dinner.
  • Call the Salvation Army, a local church, or a foster care agency, and ask for the name of a needy family. Put together a holiday gift package or dinner basket and deliver it.
  • Babysit for neighborhood children on New Year's Eve. Or, offer to babysit for parents while they shop or visit.
  • Start a new tradition in memory of a loved one.
  • Let someone do you a favor.
  • Do someone a favor.
  • Read about holiday traditions in other countries.
  • Organize a caroling group to go door- to-door or sing at a nursing home.
  • Check with your church or local schools for special concerts or presentations.
  • Renew an old friendship.

Adapted from OGR's booklet "Coping with the Holidays," written by Glen W. Davidson.

Dr. Glen W. Davidson is a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Southern Illinois University. Today, he is a scholar and Chair of the Board of Directors of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. He has been honored for his research by Claremont Graduate University, The University of Iowa College of Medicine, and the University of the Pacific. He is the author of fourteen books and numerous scholarly articles, and the former editor of two scholarly journals. Among his books are "Understanding Mourning," and "Hospice: Development and Administration."