Help for the Holidays: Ideas for the Bereaved

by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.
reprinted with permission from

I can’t claim to have immediately known what to do during my first year of bereavement. I was 35 years old with a 1 year old daughter. I remember seeing my doctor for a regular check up and complaining of anxiety symptoms, but not knowing what they were (and I’m a psychologist). She looked at me and said, OK, let’s review: You are taking your 16 month old daughter to Florida alone to visit your in-laws; you are teaching a graduate level psychology course, and Thanksgiving is two weeks away. I had to laugh at myself.

It took me awhile to get the hang of the holidays and grief. The solution seemed to involve being aware that I would be likely to experience some intense emotions during this time even if I had been feeling pretty good in general, setting some parameters for what would work for my daughter and myself, and being clearer with others about what I wanted and did not want.

Inspired by friends who surprised me with a huge Christmas tree one snowy night, I started a tradition of having a Christmas tree decorating party and inviting all of my friends and family. I had found that I felt lonely and isolated during the holidays. This party created a great sense of connection with others and it was a way of giving something to my wonderful friends and family. My daughter loved it too. It was always fun.

It’s been over 10 years since my early experiences with grief and the holidays. Here are some ideas which may be helpful for others.

8 Ideas for the Approaching the Holiday Season
1) Stay connected to your feelings.

Give yourself time to express your emotions.

Find out how you best express your feelings — by doing or writing or sharing with another, meditating, or being active. Everyone has their own style.

2) Think about what will be helpful for yourself and your family in the present.

Do not continue old traditions if they do not work for you. Especially the first year, it is often good to do something different. For example, one family I spoke with decided to take a trip and celebrated the holidays in a different country. The following year they had a more traditional Christmas at home. Another person went to Fla. and swam with the Dolphins. She reported that the experience changed her life.

3) Incorporate memories of the person into your holiday traditions.

Have someone read a poem or prayer in their honor. Create a memory quilt.

Light a candle.

4) Do not feel guilty for how you feel.

If you find that you are happy or enjoy some aspect of the holiday it is OK. If you are not feeling happy it is still OK. Don’t try to live up to others expectations of how you should feel. Sometimes family and friends will disapprove of the bereaved person if they do not seem to have the emotions that the family expects. Sometimes we carry our own expectations for how we should be instead of accepting how we feel.

It is normal to have many mixed emotions during the bereavement process and especially so on the holidays.

5)Find ways of giving to others.

When you are feeling sad and empty inside it can help to give and reach out to others in more need than yourself. Some families go to soup kitchens on Thanksgiving or other holidays. Others create a memorial fund and raise money to help others.

6) Avoid overindulgence with alcohol and food during the holidays.

Eating and drinking too much are often ways of avoiding or masking underlying emotions.

Eating and drinking too much are risks during periods of bereavement in general (see Article on health and bereavement).

7) Explore the traditions of your faith concerning mourning and remembering.

Many of the holidays specifically involve light. Try Lighting a candle for the person who has died or even creating a candle lighting memorial part of the celebration.

8) Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions, are finding yourself immobilized by your grief, or are having other adverse experiences or behaviors.

(See Article on signs of depression)

The holidays present unique challenges for those who are grieving. By taking special care in planning for them and being aware of your emotions, you will be able to survive them, and maybe find a new meaning in them for yourself and your family.