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Why the Holidays Can Be Sad for Those Grieving and What to Do About It

There are ways to understand and cope with family grief during the holidays.

Key points

  • The holidays may intensify your longings for people who have died.
  • Holidays can bring up feelings about losses that happened long ago.
  • Acknowledging within oneself and with your family the absence of someone who has died helps grieving have a time and place.

Beginning with the anticipation of Thanksgiving, and lasting through Christmas, grieving people find themselves talking with us about their lost loved ones with renewed sadness and longing. Through this consistent experience over the years as therapists, we have come to see that the supposed-to-be happy holidays can actually be sad times of the year where our patients are looking for added support and understanding. We have seen that even losses experienced many years ago can bring back strong feelings when they are associated with a holiday.

Holidays tend to be celebrated in traditional ways that become part of family ritual. As we approach these celebrations, our memories are amplified, our minds focus on who we will be with, and often, more so, on who will be absent. Our loved one's absence is often felt more keenly because the sameness of our traditions reminds us of how wonderful it was when our beloved carved the turkey, hung the decorations, or joined in the singing. Children especially may feel like it isn't really Christmas, for example, because it’s not the same as it used to be. In addition, some people feel guilty about celebrating when their loved one can no longer be there to do so.

It is important to think through where each family member, including yourself, is in relation to a loss so you can be understanding and responsive, and maybe even alter plans depending on how all are feeling. Within a family, siblings and spouses may have very different reactions to the holidays. If so, we recommend finding a compromise so that everyone feels heard and each one gets some part of what they need and want.

There is a lot of societal pressure to gather with groups of people and be festive. Joyful songs are playing in stores, people are posting photos of their happy gatherings. You and your close family may not feel able to do that this particular year. It is okay, for example, to go camping instead of gathering for Chanukah. It is useful to help children know that it isn't about meeting some image, or standard; rather, what matters is doing what fits your family this year. Holiday gatherings can be very uplifting and worth the challenge or they may feel too disconnected from where you and your children are emotionally. Take your time to really think about what choice is best for all of you. Perhaps other people will be disappointed but many understand and at some point down the line when you feel able, you can have conversations about it with those who don’t.

Over time, through our work and personal experiences, we have come to learn that memories of a loved one who has died can stir up a wide range of emotions from sadness to happiness to others, depending on how we are thinking and feeling in the moment. It is best not to push past these times and rather to accept whatever arises without a struggle. This recognizes the reality that we ache for the person who died. Instead of trying to avoid painful feelings, you can learn to bring the person who died forward with you in memory by recounting stories and occasions that bring you back to loving feelings you had, and will always have, from times shared together. We know it is not the same as what was. There can be some comfort in knowing that they will forever exist within our hearts.

That being said, we wish you a very connected and peaceful holiday season.

More from Elena Lister, MD and Michael Schwartzman, Ph.D., ABPP
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