When You Really Don’t Feel Like Celebrating Facing Holidays and Special Occasions in Grief

Author: William Hoy

The sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays remind grieving people that this year things are very different. In fact, you may find yourself dreading the holiday season more than any other time of year. Special occasions make it hard to grieve. 

Special days are filled with sentiment, and that is part of what makes them hard. Whatever we do and wherever we go these days, we are bombarded by the sights and sounds of holiday decorations and music. When a cashier wishes a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” we might be tempted to respond with, “Bah, Humbug!” Even the scents of nutmeg and cinnamon in a favorite recipe cause bells to ring in our heads: Someone we love died and our world is changed forever.

Holidays are also hard in grief because they are built around relationships. Family gatherings cannot ever be the same. And, of course, memories of bad relationships cause us to realize the past cannot be changed.

Most of us face special days in grief with a goal to simply get through them with a minimal number of scars. Instead, work to change your goal. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this time a positive time of transformation for me, my children, and our family?” 

Mom and Daughter drawing

Tip 1: Admit The Pain of Grieving Through The Holidays

Much like the 12-step movement reminds us, the first step is to admit the pain of grieving through the holidays. Saying goodbye to a loved one is no easy task, and, undoubtedly, it feels different than you could ever have expected. Moreover, our friends and family, though well-meaning, may say insensitive things that make grief extra hard. They might glibly tell you to “Just get on with your life.” But they offer that advice because they simply don’t understand.

There is an empty chair at the table on this special occasion. When that chair was empty during deployments or other periods of prolonged separation, you always expected your loved one to come back. The grief following a death assaults at every turn with the reality that they will not be returning to the table. Because holiday grief is so painful, there is no need to try escaping the pain this holiday season.


Tip 2: Do Only as Much Celebrating as You Feel Like Doing

During this holiday season, do only as much celebrating as you feel like doing. Well-meaning friends or family may want you to attend parties and gatherings, hoping to cheer you up. You may want to participate in some of those events, and you always have to consider the impact of nonparticipation on others you care about, like children and elderly family members. But think in advance about others’ expectations of you and the parties you are expected to attend. Make a plan about which invitations you want to accept. 

You might want to have a family meeting about plans, decorations, and activities. If there are parts you anticipate being especially difficult, but they seem important to others, enlist help. If you cannot face preparing a full holiday meal like you have always done, but others want to keep the tradition alive, suggest a potluck where everyone contributes to the table. 

Remember that grief is very tiring and — even under the best of circumstances — holidays are very taxing. Attending every event, party, or celebration may cause you to meet the new year feeling totally exhausted. You have permission to say no, even to well-intentioned invitations. Simply remind your friends that your energy level hasn’t returned to where it was before the death, and thank them for understanding your need to decline.


Tip 3: Evaluate Your Traditions and Create At Least One New One

Evaluate your traditions and create at least one new one. If you stop now and make a list of all of your holiday traditions, the list may include a dozen or more activities — when you decorate the house, where and when you worship during the holidays, in whose home you share a family meal, and perhaps many others. Since you can't keep everything like it was, evaluate what you do for the holidays and determine — with your family's help — which traditions you want to preserve.

While you are deleting some activities, also create something new. You may want to light a special candle or purchase a special holiday decoration and hang it in your loved one's memory. Providing gifts to a needy family and hosting an international student in your home can also become meaningful holiday traditions. If facing the holidays alone is more than you can bear, consider volunteering at a local feeding program or senior living facility on a holiday, since volunteers are in short supply, but the need continues.

Holiday meal

Tip 4: Take Care of Your Physical Well-Being

Don't forget during the harried pace of special days to take care of your physical well-being. Eating a well-balanced diet, getting adequate rest, and participating in appropriate exercise for your abilities are essential to the bereavement process and contribute to a positive attitude and outlook. Grief is stressful, so make sure you are carefully monitoring consumption of less healthy foods and potentially harmful substances: caffeine, processed sugar, alcohol and other addictive chemicals, animal fats, and processed foods. Be sure you are also drinking plenty of water. Of course, you’ll want to talk with your health care professional about changes to your diet and exercise, but these ideas can help a great deal with your overall sense of well-being. 


Tip 5: Consider The Spiritual Dimension of Your Life

Grief on special days also challenges the meaning we make of experiences, so give consideration to the spiritual dimension of your life. The holidays have spiritual roots, and many people find themselves drawn to consider spiritual truth, especially when someone close has died. Worshiping with your faith community as the holidays approach or having a discussion with a spiritual leader are helpful ways to face special days in grief.

Sparklers, Festive scene

Tip 6: Embrace Your Memories of Holidays Past

Don't forget to embrace your memories of past holidays and special events as you face this season. We cannot have things like they were, but we can hold in our hearts the memories of days gone by. Write your favorite stories in a journal. Look through photos in an album or on your phone. These are probably painful at first, but they help us face the future by celebrating with gratitude what we had in the past.

Special days in grief are not easy. What they can be, however, in addition to days of great pain, are days of amazing growth. Make a choice to thrive as you face these special days in grief.

William G. Hoy, DMin, FT is a clinical professor of medical humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. A member of the TAPS Advisory Board and a widely published author, he is regarded as an authority on the role of social support in death, dying, and grief.

Photos: Pexels