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Coping With Grief During the Holidays

Posted on December 12, 2012, 4:47 PM
Coping With Grief During the Holidays
Judi's House Staff

By Micki Burns, Ph.D. and Brook Griese, Ph.D.

The Holidays. Celebrations. Traditions. Friends. Family. Given the images portrayed in advertisements and popular media, one might wonder how anyone could feel anything but warmth, connectedness and joy during such a festive season.

However, for many, the holidays signal a time of stress, loneliness and sadness. For grieving families, including those affected by long-term illnesses such as cancer, these emotions are often overwhelming. The widower who struggles to imagine how he will recreate the joy and traditions of the holidays for his children anywhere close to the way that his beloved wife did. The bereaved mother who longs to buy the toy truck she sees for her little boy who has died—who would give anything to see his eyes light up just one more time. The young mother of three, grappling with what to say in the family holiday card, knowing that many of the people on her mailing list have not yet heard that her husband died just a few months ago. How do you cope? How do you survive?

At Judi’s House—a nonprofit, community-based bereavement center in Denver, Colorado—we recognize that grief is a painful journey that is unique for every individual. There are no timelines for healing, no right or wrong ways to mourn, and no orderly stages of grief. However, through our work with grieving families we have found ways to support one another in the healing process. These shared experiences from the thousands of children and adults we have served have taught us about the challenges of grief, as well as the actions that lead to comfort, hope and healing. Following are some of these lessons that may ease the process of grief during the holiday season.

Reflect. Allow yourself and your family time to reflect on holiday memories. Use these reflections to thoughtfully determine what traditions you want to carry forward, what customs you want to change and what new rituals you want to create. Include all members of the family who have played a significant role in your past celebrations. Inform your family of your hopes for the reflection. Encourage multiple modes of expression such as writing, art, play or conversation. Some family members may want to reflect alone. Others may desire a communal conversation. Although there may not be consensus, providing space for intentional remembrance and planning may avoid overlooking something meaningful. Reflection can bring forth strong emotions—let yourself feel.

Plan. Use your reflections to assess your family’s wants and needs. This can be difficult. This may be your first holiday without your loved one. Tasks others may be able to assist with include shopping, cooking, cleaning, gift wrapping and decorating. It is ok if you are not clear about your expectations. As much as possible, determine your limits and set boundaries. Kindness and goodwill go hand in hand with the holidays. Neighbors, friends, and family will offer to help. Others’ generosity may feel overwhelming. You may want to appoint one individual to field offers for help and assistance. Know that at any time it is ok to change your mind and your plans.

Communicate. You have worked hard to prepare for and manage your grief during the holidays. Communicate your needs to those around you and use your supports. Empower yourself to ask questions. If you are invited to a community celebration, inquire who will be there and when it will begin and end. Although it is not possible to anticipate what triggers grief, having more information upfront may allow you to prepare for difficult questions and encounters. Ultimately you may choose to not attend and do something different.

Remember. Find ways to memorialize and create a presence for your loved one during the holidays. When we are grieving we do not have to “let go” of the person who died, but we do need to learn to hold on in a different way. Make time to share memories of the person who is so evidently missing from the dinner table or the gift exchange. Watch videos, tell stories or look at photos. Hang an ornament or light a candle in memory of the person who died. Prepare their favorite recipe, play their favorite holiday song, or visit their gravesite. Engage in an act of kindness or give to a charity in their honor.

Cope. Grief is complicated. Forecasting when the waves of grief will come rushing in is not always possible. Your experience of grief is unique to you and unique to each of your family members. It is not unusual to feel suddenly overcome by grief. When the waves hit, having reliable coping skills available can make a tremendous difference. Especially during the holidays, it can be challenging to meet your own needs, let alone those in your care as a result of loss. It is important to make time for rest and self-care. Doing so makes you more available to those looking to you for guidance, support and nurturance.

The following are some elements of the coping and caregiving skills that are integral pieces of the Pathfinders program developed and used at Judi’s House:

Relax: Breathe, release tension, slow down. This can be through yoga or meditation, muscle relaxation techniques, or just deep “belly” breathing. Even a long run or a hot bath can help bring back a sense of calm and steadiness to face the next wave of grief or holiday rush.

Listen: Take the time to hear your own thoughts and catch when they are making you feel worse. Challenge negative thoughts or self-talk that contribute to feeling overwhelmed or powerless during the holidays. Listen to your own wisdom without judgment. Create the space to really listen to your family and what they are telling you THEY need. Many times it will be just that… to be HEARD.

Play: Make time to enjoy the friends and family in your life. Play a card or board game. Shoot hoops in the driveway, toss a football in the yard, go sledding at the park. Go bowling, play video games, dance around the kitchen. Let yourself LAUGH. We need and deserve to take breaks from our grief.

By setting aside time to relax, listen and play, you make space for the light and restored joy that the person or people who died would have wanted for you during this holiday season… and every season.

Micki Burns, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist and Director of Programs at Judi’s House. Brook Griese, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist and Judi’s House Co-Founder and Director of Research and Program Development. Learn more about Judi’s House at

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Posted by Juana G | December 13, 2012 11:14 AM

Brooke & Micki ~ Thank you for the great information. Being a cancer fighter myself (stage4 met. Breast cancer) with a 6 yr old daughter I plan to print this off & put it in my “when mommy is gone” folder for my husband. I also have a friend who has 2 children under 9 that just lost their mom to Br. Ca & I plan to share this with him as they all are having a hard time right now. Thanks again, Juanita Bohn Gee

Posted by Eugene Refakes | December 13, 2012 12:46 PM

I have found that a great tool for coping is to remind my children and myself that our dear Lyn is in a better place and free from suffering and pain.  And that she is happy, content, and able to watch over and guide us all at once.  Something she so struggled to do but was physically unable during her existence her on earth.

Posted by Kaen | December 13, 2012 3:28 PM

Thanks for this- needed it

Posted by Nancy F. | December 22, 2013 2:48 PM

Thank you for the gentle reminders that are so needed during the holidays!

Posted by Cheryl Duncan | December 22, 2013 3:05 PM

Thank You. The holidays are tough but I’m still trying to not make it taboo here

Posted by Michelle Jenner | December 22, 2013 3:22 PM

THANK YOU, for that information.
It’s been HARD for me to ENJOY Christmas ever since my BEAUTIFUL GODDAUGHTER/NIECE Marcy had passed away on DECEMBER 21st,2005 from PH+ALL LEUKEMIA when she was only 16 years old.
I TRY every year to ENJOY the holidays but I just CAN’T,  I put on a fake SMILE and PRETEND like I’m having a good time, for the rest of my family ESPECIALLY when the rest of my nieces and nephews were younger. But NOW they are ALL teenagers, like Marcy was. Yesterday was her 8year ANGELVERSARY in HEAVEN, and I fell apart.
I did it when nobody was around to see it, I tried talking to a friend about Marcy. But she just kept trying to change the subject to something else, when ALL I wanted to do is to talk to someone about her and REMEMBER her.
Marcy and I had this SPECIAL connection, she was also, my first GODDAUGHTER, she was the 1st born as I am. I took her to her 1 1st Country concert and to a movie that she wanted to see so bad one year, TITANIC.
I couldn’t have kids so my 3 nieces and 2 nephews are like my kids, so when Marcy got sick and died 2 1/2 months later, I felt like I lost one of my own children. My HEART felt like it was being RIPPED out of my chest.

Posted by Jodie | December 22, 2013 3:56 PM

In April I lost my great aunt morag, every Christmas she bought me pyjamas and I only realised I had never got her anythinv back. I lost her to ovarian cancer and my gran is now in recovery for breat cancer. I am going to find this year really hard even though I barely spent time with my auntie. I will treasure every second I had with her and forever regret not thanking her enough for being so strong. Only tonight after 2 bottles of wine has it hit me I am not going to receive a card or present from her and that sounds spoilt but it’s just the surreal moment of realisation that she is no longer here with her. To make it up to her I am going to spend all Christmas with my granny to make sure she enjoys this time of year and can relax and forget about the shit year we have had… TO 2014 EVERYONE!! Best of luck!!

Posted by Erika M | December 22, 2013 4:02 PM

This is wonderful.  For me the Holidays are tough when you are having a rollercoaster time and can’t just get some alone reflection time, also to just have a good cry.  If people haven’t gone through it they just don’t understand & when I’m having a sobbing moment I don’t want to explain it.  I keep a tight knit very private circle of friends who love, embrace and support me always and make me feel safe no matter how blubbery I get.  I don’t post things on social media for attention, I just prefer to protect my feelings.  My mom died 3 years ago 1 day after Thanksgiving and Holidays haven’t been the same.  She has reached out to me at my toughest times and will always be there, I take comfort in that.

Posted by Stephanie Hunter | December 22, 2013 4:49 PM

Trying to get through this Christmas- I lost my last sibling, my dear sister Sharon in August to cancer. I lost both brothers and Father to this horrible disease. So, now I am the last one and I hate this feeling of being alone.  I try to put on a smile for other’s sake but it doesn’t last long.  While I try to remember to celebrate their life it just doesn’t seem to get any easier.

Posted by Katie | December 22, 2013 6:53 PM

I lost my mom 1/2/13 to metastatic breast cancer, so as this holiday creeps up on me, I’m having trouble keeping my emotions in check. Thank you for posting reminders that it’s ok to feel and to take time out.

Posted by Mindy Clark | December 22, 2013 8:48 PM

My husband past away 2 weeks ago.of his 5 th battle with cancer, all non related. This last battle lasted 3 months to the day of diagnosis.  It was just he and I and our Animal Kids. Christmas morning was our favorite morning of the entire year. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to face this day. My friends put up my tree and decorated it, I really appreciate that. My husband knows how much I love our tree. I have been hiding the last couple days and I know he wouldn’t want that. I need to find the courage to believe this is actually real. I plan to go to mass Christmas morning and then I accept an invitation to close friends for dinner. I hope I can make it through that. Thank you for posting this article.

Posted by Brenda Pepitone | December 26, 2013 2:27 PM

My only child and my daughter and best friend died of esophageal cancer in 2010. Holiday are terrible. Not only do I grieve my daughter’s death, but because she was my only family, I struggle with the loneliness. During holidays there’s no way to escape happy families and that simply reminds me that I no longer have family. Next year I will volunteer somewhere. I thought of it this year but was too late to sign up. I don’t think this hurting in my heart will go away; it will become manageable, but it is a pain that will always be with me. I don’t know about the loneliness; maybe I’ll get used to it.

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