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Coping with Grief During the Holidays

The Holiday Season can be a challenging time of year. Commercial advertising promotes the idea that we should be dancing around in the magical spirit of the holidays. Bustling to and from holiday parties, going on endless shopping sprees in search of the perfect gifts, and parading through town hopping from one social event to another.

The truth is that the holiday season brings an ebb and flow of grief that can become overwhelming when you’ve lost a loved one. Holiday celebrations no longer feel the same without that special person at the table, so maybe you have been thinking about skipping the holidays altogether.

Your holiday celebrations or traditions may look very different this year. The past memories and present reality will certainly collide, but in the midst of the pain, there is hope for healing in the holiday season.

I lost my youngest sister to a genetic disease 2 months prior to the start of the holiday season. The holidays of 2018 certainly were the hardest and the celebrations looked different but I focused on what worked for me and my family. I want to acknowledge your loss and help you start the process of healing and slowly putting the pieces of your life back together. A good place to start is by honoring your loved one’s memory.

If you’re wondering how to survive the holidays this year without your loved one, these 7 strategies can help:

1. Donate To a Charity
Is there a cause, church, school, or social issue they were passionate about? Donate to that cause. Contact the church, school or organization and let them know that you are making a donation in the name of your special loved one. What a wonderful way to honor their memory by continuing to contribute to your loved one’s cause!

2. Take a Walk
A lot of cities and towns around the United States host walks for causes such as cancer, chronic and genetic conditions. If your loved one was passionate about a cause that has an existing walk, think about signing up in their honor. That being said, you do not have to participate in a national walk. You and your family, or a group of friends can organize your own private walk in their honor. Get t-shirts made. Plot a route that takes you past some of their favorite places and enjoy fond memories as you walk.

3. Share your Holidays
Doing something for someone else who is struggling and hurting can improve your mood. It reminds you that you are not alone in your struggle and that you can turn some of that pain into purpose. You can encourage, support, and be encouraged by others walking through their own journey. There is hope and healing through serving others. Volunteer for a cause that was near and dear to your loved one. Where you can serve in honor of their memory. It is good for your heart, soul, and mind.

4. Reach Out and Get Connected
Get together with other people that loved, cherished, and treasured your loved one as well. There is strength in being around other people with fond memories of your loved one. Swap stories. Lean on each other for support. Come together and celebrate your loved one’s life instead of focusing on the loss. Knowing that there are other folks who “get it”; other people who know and understand just how amazing your family member or friend was can help ease some of that grief. It is helpful to know that you are not alone in your grief and that the person you loved so much touched so many lives. Look through pictures. Create a scrapbook of good memories. Each of you can write a letter or a poem or prayer that you can release on floating balloons. Think of ways to honor the good, happy memories you treasure so dearly.

5. Create New Traditions
Don’t be afraid to create new traditions this year too. It’s OK to get creative and do something a little out of the ordinary. You can also alter old traditions and make them fit better with the new phase in your life.

Don’t toss out the entire season! If you don’t feel like decorating the whole house, try doing just a room or a corner or perhaps just a table.

Don’t want to cook but want to share a meal with loved ones then order from your favorite restaurant and skip the stress.

Light a candle and sing your favorite holiday songs

Watch your favorite holiday movie with family or friends

6. Set Boundaries with Holiday Events
You can participate and not participate in whatever feels right for you. While there may be pressure to attend a holiday party, family gathering,or holiday show. You certainly can say No. If attending a gift swap at the office or going to a tree lighting ceremony triggers painful memories then choose to opt out.

7. Tune Into Your Emotions
The holidays can bring a wide range of emotions. You may find yourself cycling between sadness, guilt, and joy all within a few minutes. Don’t get frustrated or become overwhelmed instead allow yourself to feel your emotions without fighting or judging them. Practice self- compassion and open your heart to accepting your feelings.


The holiday season is not always filled with bliss. It is normal to feel anxious about the holidays and you’re certainly not alone. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to approach the holiday season following the loss of a loved one. If you experience happiness, don’t feel guilty but open your heart to the moment of joy. Be mindful and present with the people around you and allow them to fill you with love. Be kind to yourself and try to take it one day at a time.

Carmen Riley is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Virginia and the District of Columbia. She is the owner of  Zion Restoration Counseling Services, a group practice in Fairfax Virginia that specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, relationship issues and trauma.  To learn more or if you would like to make an appointment check her group website at to schedule an appointment.

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10623 Jones Street Suite 301A
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(703) 267-5703

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