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Blog: Stories and Insight

Navigating Grief and the Winter Holidays – Finding Your Way

Bodhi Day, Sukkot, Diwali, Mawlid al-Nabi, Dia de los Muertos, Hanukkah, Christmas. This is a short list of some of the major religious holidays celebrated during the last 3 months of the year. There are also important cultural holidays that occur this time of year including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Day of Mourning, Kwanza, and New Year’s Eve. The days get shorter and the nights longer leading up to the winter solstice. This can be an especially difficult time following the death of a loved one. The idea of the absence of a presence takes on deep meaning during holidays and other special days like birthdays and anniversaries.

Most often, holidays bring to mind joy, cheer, and happy festivities. However, even for those not grieving a loss, a Healthline survey found about 60% of gen x’ers, millennials and baby boomers found the December “holidays” to be very or somewhat stressful. Holiday Stressors – Healthline. A behavioral health center blog even reports that you may not be alone if you would prefer to skip the December holiday season altogether, as about 45% of people living in the US feel the same way. Holiday Stress – Clarity Clinic

But, for those who have lost a loved one, holidays can intensify the grief experience. In an article written for the Mayo Clinic’s News Network, Micah Dorfner reminds us that following the death of a loved one, the sights, sounds, and smells associated with holiday celebrations can be reminders of what (or who) “they don’t have,” and common grief reactions can be experienced more strongly than anticipated.  Grief and the Holidays – Mayo Clinic News Network

The October through December holiday news isn’t all bad, however, even for those grieving the loss of a loved one. A 2014 study by Carr et al examined whether older persons who had lost a spouse experienced higher levels of anxiety, depression, and grief surrounding the deceased spouse’s birthday, the winter holiday season (December and January), and around wedding anniversaries.  Their study revealed both expected and unexpected information. January and June turned out to be the most difficult months for survey respondents. It seems the post-December holiday time can be difficult, as well as the month of June, a popular time for weddings, anniversaries, and graduations. The time around a deceased spouse’s birthday can also be a significantly difficult time for people who are grieving.  But, they also found that “special occasion reactions” tend to be more acute during early stages of loss and diminish over time.  Do Special Occasions Trigger Psychological Distress Among Older Bereaved Spouses? – PMC (

So then, how do you navigate holidays and other special days following the death of someone important to you? Grief professionals have been making suggestions for holiday and special day considerations following the death of a loved one for some time.

Tips for Navigating Winter Holidays

  • Communicate with family and friends about your needs. This includes preparing and planning ahead for special days and making decisions that allow you choices, such as driving your own car to gatherings so you can leave when you choose. Have plan A and plan B when it comes to holiday gatherings.
  • Decide which rituals and traditions to keep and which ones you want to change. Be creative and ask for help. Let go of guilt around change if it will help you cope.
  • Acknowledge your loss. Process your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend, family member, or a grief professional. Know who and what can help you when you are grieving.
  • Take it “one day at a time” to avoid anticipatory dread of certain days. Many people report that the time leading up to the holiday or special day was harder than the day itself due to anticipatory stress.
  • Take deep belly breaths and keep your focus on the breath if you feel anxious or triggered. The breath can help calm the nervous system. Breathing Exercise for Grief & Stress
  • Know your triggers. While you can’t always avoid them, knowing them can help you prepare for them and not feel blindsided.
  • Allow yourself tears, laughter, sadness, joy, anger, surprise, and a full range of emotions.
  • Use a journal. It can help you to get difficult feelings out and onto paper. It can show you that your grief experience has ups and downs, not only downs. It can help you to express verbally and non-verbally. Pictures, doodles, colors, and symbols can say as much as words. 5 Benefits of Grief Journaling
  • Know that finding balance between your grief and other areas of your life can be important. Grief can be exhausting. Restoration activities are important too.
  • Share memories and find meaningful ways to honor your loved one. Make connections with your loved one through continuing bonds while moving forward in your life takes balance, patience, and self-compassion.
  • Honor the holidays for the things that make them special and universal; a focus on light, love, giving, sharing, service, and compassion for self and others.

Holidays and other special days can be stressful following a loss, but the anticipatory grief leading up to the day, and the actual day, can be navigated with less stress when we acknowledge our feelings, develop some new rituals while honoring the old ones, and engage in thoughtful planning.

Find information on Samaritan’s Coping with Holidays support groups here. Coping With Holidays

Watch for our upcoming coping with holidays and other special days as we move through the seasons.