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Grief and the Holidays

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering if grieving during this year’s holidays is easier or harder due to COVID-19. The other day, I chatted with a widowed friend about her coworker, who lost her husband earlier this year. She said her coworker was glad and thankful that COVID-19 makes the holiday season easier. She doesn’t have to worry about Christmas parties, she isn’t faced with all the normal traditions, and nothing is expected of her because so much has already changed this holiday season. And even though many in the world are still celebrating and joyous, there is more stress, less celebration, and fewer joyous people. For this grieving widow, this makes the holidays easier. On the other hand, I heard of a widow struggling because her grandkids have been the shining light in her world since her husband’s death. Due to COVID-19, she can’t see them, making the holidays hard.


Either way, I know the holiday season can be brutally painful when you’ve lost a loved one. I can’t tell you how to get through the season or how to celebrate it, but I’m going to post a series of suggestions over the following week. In the meantime, I’m sending you much love and hugs.

Be compassionate with yourself


I was just chatting with my neighbor, who lost his wife earlier this year. We discussed decorating for Christmas. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure if he would put up a tree because it’s not enjoyable putting up a tree without his wife; her absence is so pronounced at this time. I told him I thought he’d eventually know if it felt right to decorate. I hadn’t planned to decorate for my first Christmas without my husband. But shortly before Christmas, I decided I wanted to put up a tree in his honor. All of a sudden, it just felt right to me. I told my neighbor that if it feels right for him, he could do it. And if it doesn’t feel right, don’t decorate.


If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one this Christmas season, I know the holidays can be a brutal time. Please take care of yourself and give yourself a break. Rest if you need to, put boundaries in place if you need to, and give yourself the space to feel your emotions.


Do something for others or donate to charities


Do something for others or donate if you have the time or means. Sometimes focusing on others can bring joy or satisfaction even during the midst of the painful grieving process. During my first Christmas without my husband (just 5 weeks after his death), I felt compelled to donate to my city’s toy drive. I thought, “Just because I’m miserable doesn’t mean some little girl shouldn’t get a gift on Christmas.” So, I purchased a Barbie (my favorite toy as a little girl) and put it in the bin. Even though I was in tremendous pain, for the hour it took me to buy the Barbie, I was focused on someone else, which helped.

Your donation doesn’t have to be financial. COVID makes it impossible (or at least risky) to serve in person. But, you can knit a scarf for the homeless, foster an animal in need, shovel snow for your neighbors, or pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor while you’re getting your groceries.


Keep traditions if they serve you

Christmas is a time when we focus on spending time with family and friends, and the holidays are a time to create and relive memories. For many of us, Christmas is a time for traditions, which makes the absence of a loved one pronounced. My first Christmas without my husband, I didn’t want any traditions. In fact, I wanted to go somewhere tropical where Christmas could be forgotten, or where it was the polar opposite of what I’d known—in other words, breaking the traditions. But, I stayed home and kept the traditions alive. For me, that meant decorating a Christmas tree and having the same Christmas Eve meal. I decorated the tree in my husband’s honor using his favorite ornaments or ornaments we’d purchased together during vacations.


Other traditions ceased. For example, we always attended the Parade of Lights, a holiday parade that I loved. But I stopped going after his death (COVID canceled it this year). We used to drive around town looking at Christmas lights, but I haven’t done that since his death (though it’s a good idea this year due to COVID).


If traditions serve you during your grief journey, keep them. If they don’t, then go ahead and let them go. Try something new.


Incorporate and honor your loved ones


My family continued our traditional Christmas Eve dinner after my husband’s death. I’ve incorporated my husband into that tradition. I set a place at the Christmas Eve table for him (my deceased sister gets one as well). I place a photo of him dressed as Santa on the plate and a teddy bear in his seat. We continue to include food that he’d cook for the dinner. The first Christmas without him, we lit votive candles in front of each person as a way to honor and remember him. One year, we shared our favorite memory of him. In other words, I honor and incorporate him into Christmas. This is one way I’m able to enjoy Christmas.


If it would help you this holiday season, I encourage you to honor and incorporate your loved ones.


Be ok if you want to celebrate


While the holidays can bring grief, you may find you want to celebrate or that you’re feeling happy. If so, please allow that. I always hated when people told me my husband would want me to feel happy. It felt like they were dismissing my feelings. That being said, I do believe our loved ones want us to be happy. I think they want us to celebrate the holidays and carry on traditions they formed with us. They want us to laugh and sing.


Sometimes that can make us feel guilty or feel wrong when we’ve lost a loved one. But I do believe they’d want us to enjoy ourselves at the holidays. So, if you feel like celebrating or feel happy, please allow that and have fun.


Take comfort from pets

If you have pets, focus on them this season; if you don’t, just notice the dogs in your neighborhood. Our pets probably notice it’s the holidays because our energy changes, new decorations are added, and possibly there are more cooking smells. This year when I brought my Christmas tree into the house, my older cat tore around the house (I think if I could hear her talk, she’d be saying, “There’s a tree in the house!!!”). But if it weren’t for us, our pets wouldn’t know or care that’s it’s the holiday season.


Watching my cats and their I-don’t-care-about-holidays attitude has saved me many times. For example, the other night I watched a Christmas movie that I didn’t think would have romance. Sure enough, it did, and I felt depressed after watching it. But my cat was snuggled on my lap. I looked at her and thought, “She doesn’t care that it’s Christmas. This is any other day for her. So why should I care that it’s the holidays, and Hollywood tells us we should have romance at the holidays?” For me, focusing on my pets can shift my focus and brighten my spirits.


If you have pets, try focusing on them if you feel grief. If you don’t have your own pets, observe the neighborhood dogs. They notice it’s colder on their walks, but they don’t care about Christmas. Sometimes remembering that can help us get through the holidays too.


I know this is a hard time. I send you much hugs and love.

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