Tips for Coping During the Holidays After Loss of a Loved One

By James Bosch

Two clasped hands, one scarred, with autumn leaves in the background.

No matter what holiday you celebrate and regardless of your chosen tradition or religion, it is possible to survive a trauma or loss and find meaning in the holidays again. The most important coping strategy to remember, especially during those first holidays, is to create space for difficult feelings and awkward moments.

Do only what feels right.

There are no right or wrong ways to celebrate the holidays after a loss or trauma. Consult with your immediate family and come up with a plan that works for you. Resist the temptation to do what you always did or to feel pressured into attending parties or occasions that feel too difficult.

Nurture, nurture, nurture.

Respect your body during these difficult times and practice lots of self-care--time alone, walks (if you are able), and distractions (such as movies). Pay attention to cues that you are overloaded and need to take care of yourself. Avoid harmful coping techniques, such as alcohol, drugs, binge eating, and not eating enough. Set limits and boundaries with others when you need space.

Allow yourself to NOT participate in the hype.

Try to disengage from the commercial aspects of the holidays. Give yourself permission to shop or not shop. Set aside the pressure to “keep up” with the hype of the season. If you have small children, ask for help from relatives and friends to help you create a holiday atmosphere for them.

Create ritual.

Hang a stocking for your loved one, set a place for them at the Chanukah dinner, create memory alters with photos from past holidays, participate in your individual faith celebrations and remember your loved ones in services or by lighting candles for them.

Helpful pointers for coping with a loss of a loved one as a family.

Everyone in the family may grieve differently. Give each other plenty of space, and support each other when asked. Know that difficulty and conflict can arise in families as each family member may have different ideas on how to celebrate. The optimal way to deal with this is to openly talk with each other about expectations and the roles people want to play.

  1. Share stories around the table about your deceased loved one.
  2. Look at old photo albums together.
  3. Observe a moment of silence together to honor your loved one.
  4. Place an empty chair where your loved one normally sat and place a flower or candle there.
  5. Decide which traditions you want to keep and which you would like to change.

Something experts seem to agree on is that the most important thing you can do is talk about your loved one. At functions, if you do not speak his or her name, often no one else will either. Say your loved one’s name, include them in stories of past holidays, and allow space for the tears that may come with these memories.

James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life in the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He speaks and facilitates at burn meetings in Canada and the United States. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and a consultant.

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