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The first holiday season after a loss

Holidays are a time for happy and joyous celebrations with family and friends — but when you are facing a holiday season after the loss of a loved one, the holiday expectations can feel overwhelming. You’re still grieving and there’s pressure to be “happy” — which may make you feel worse or even thoroughly depressed! No matter where you are in your grief, you still need to get through this first holiday season after your loss.

Woman with holiday blues

The first holiday season after my father passed away was challenging on many levels. Even though we had not actually spent the holiday together in several years due to distance, it was no longer possible to spend a holiday with him — or just call him to tell him what we were doing to celebrate. Every ritual from my childhood home — his home — that I’d continued in my adult home brought tears to my eyes. As happy a holiday as we were creating for our children, this one was different for me, and it was an emotionally conflicted time. It felt wrong in some ways to be celebrating, even though I knew that is exactly what he would want me to do.

Kids notice

As much as you may try to keep your grief in check or squash it, kids are perceptive little beings and they will notice something is off. Your kids are likely going through their own grief, and it may be confusing for them. They are looking to you for signals on how to process grief. Suppressing your emotions may not be the signal you want to send. Working though grief at the holidays is a family effort.

Respect your grief

Trying to force yourself to feel happy when experiencing grief can be an exercise in futility. You may just end up making yourself (and family around you!) more unhappy amid what is supposed to be a “happy” holiday.

Respect yourself and your emotions and try to recognize that experiencing a holiday season this way, after this sad life change, is part of your individual grieving process. Everyone does grief a little (or a lot) differently. There is no one right or wrong way to grieve a loss, particularly during holiday season, and there are benefits to grieving a loss.

Your grief, especially at this emotionally intense and pressure-filled time of year, may feel like a rollercoaster. One minute you’re up, the next your down, then you’re off to the side somewhere. Some parts of your grief may seem like symptoms of depression — and indeed, you should be aware of the potential for depression after a loss. Take the days one at a time. Don’t expect certain emotions at any given time during the holiday season, but don’t deny them either.

Honor your loved one

The holidays are an opportune time to turn your sadness and grief into positive action. Think about how your loved one would have wanted you to celebrate and live your life. You can honor your lost loved one by keeping going, even when you feel so sad and miss them desperately.

You can also honor your loved one by finding ways to help others with similar health issues, or commit to a cause championed by your loved one. For example, if your beloved grandfather passed away after a long battle with heart disease, you can become involved fundraising and educational efforts of the American Heart Association both now and in the coming months and years. If your dear aunt was a literacy volunteer for immigrants, you can continue that work.

Make a new tradition

You can’t bring your loved one back. You can, however, create new holiday traditions that allow you to remember your lost loved one during the holiday season. What is something that your loved one really enjoyed? If it was singing loudly, proudly and woefully out-of-tune, go for that. Was it giving goofy gifts to the collective cousins? Take over that role — and you may be able to help others through their grief while working through your own.

The first holiday after the loss of a loved one can be extremely challenging. Be kind to yourself and other family members as you try to process the complex, often conflicting emotions of grief. Honor your lost loved one, maybe even start a new tradition. You will get through it.

Read more about grief

Books to help in dealing with grief and loss
How to talk to your kids about death
The hidden benefits of grief

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