Good Grief! How DO you get through the holidays?

Grief and the holidays will go hand in hand for some families this year. Many of you are facing this time with sadness and dread. Struggling to figure out how to “celebrate” the holidays while grieving the loss of someone you love. As a family caregiver you may be experiencing this yourself – even if your loved one is still with you.

Not all of us are grieving for the same reason. For some this is a holiday without their loved one, others are sad thinking that this may be their last one together and for some they are grieving the loss of a “person” who is still present. Trying to avoid these feelings of sadness only seem to make the holidays just that much harder. It is only in choosing to go through the process of grieving that we can really begin to heal. Grieving begins by acknowledging for whom and what you are sad about and then giving yourself permission to not just feel the sadness but also share those feelings with others.

Are you struggling with holiday grief?

Do you know for whom or why are you grieving?

First Christmas?

Grieving the one who is gone is difficult – whether this is the first holiday without them or the tenth there is always a sadness as we remember our loss. The holidays make someone’s absence much more obvious and therefore harder to ignore. Our holiday traditions, when missing a key player, can feel very empty and sad.

The challenge to get you through these first holidays is to honor the memory of the one you lost while staying connected those still here. The holidays provide a unique time for families to grieve together by giving each other love and support in their shared loss. Although all of you are grieving the same person, but each of you is grieving a different role they played in your life – a husband, a father or a grandfather. But it is in your shared sadness and connection that you can keep the memories of that person alive and present.

Give yourself permission to feel your sadness. It is okay to skip or change a tradition that is too difficult or sad while holding fast to ones that bring comfort. And remember that every person even within the same family will grieve differently. There in no one right way – do what works best for you individually and as a family. Talk about the one you loved – and still love. Cry about how sad it is that they are gone – and laugh about things they said or did. Keep their memory and presence alive especially at the holidays.

A year without “presence”?

Many family caregivers are grieving the loss of a person who is still present. Families caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia really struggle through the holidays as they juggle not just the disease but also their own grief. Grieving the loss who they were and how they interacted can make the holidays a time of deep sadness. Traditions may have to change to accommodate your loved one’s needs making this time of year much more stressful for everyone. Family caregivers struggle to balance their own needs with the needs of the one they love along with the demands of the holidays.

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can make the holidays a challenge. The change in routine as well as the physical environment can create enormous stress for our loved one causing them to act out or become more difficult. Furniture rearranged to make room for a Christmas tree and familiar objects moved or replaced with holiday decorations can be very disorienting for a dementia patient. The challenge caregivers face is maintaining some “normalcy” for their loved one while enjoying the holiday season.

Read my article on Dementia and the Holidays where I share some tips on making holidays less stressful for you and your loved one.

Last Christmas?

“What are we going to do for Christmas when Grandma isn’t here?” is the question my son asked as we were making plans for Christmas. Grandma has spent Christmas Eve and Christmas day with us since my father passed away in 2003. And prior to his death my parents had always spent the holidays with my family. Now at age 92 she travels less and so she spends more time with us – coming earlier and staying longer.

The sadness my son was expressing was his realization that our holidays will – one day – dramatically change. His anticipatory grief – as we therapists define it – is a process of imagining what life will be like after a loss before you actually experience the loss. This form of grief can be both a gift and a burden. When we acknowledge an impending loss we can begin to emotionally prepare for that loss. Now this doesn’t make it any easier when the time comes but it can be a call to action to not waste the time you have now.

When we struggle with our anticipatory grief it is a reminder to take advantage of the present moment. To use the time wisely while our loved one is still here. To make the time matter by creating new memories that will carry us through when faced with the real loss.

Good Grief through the holidays

It is important to acknowledge that all family traditions evolve over time as we accommodate the natural changes in our families. Holidays with small children are different when those children become adults and then again when they have children. And grieving the changes and the losses whether actual or anticipated is all part of this natural process. Keeping your holiday plans flexible to meet the changing needs of family is all part of being a family. Passing family traditions on to the next generation is also part of the process. There is great sadness as we let go of what we had but we can find joy in new traditions and make new memories. We will always miss the one who is gone but the memories we hold of the time they were with us live on in our hearts forever.

So when my son asked, “What are we going to do for Christmas when Grandma isn’t here?” My answer was to remind him that thankfully we don’t have to think about that this year. This year is about continuing to make more memories that we will cherish when that time comes. So for now…



The day this blog was originally published on December 21, 2016 I learned that this would be our last Christmas with my Mother. She had become increasingly weaker and not able to recover from a bout of pnuemonia and was now home bound. So instead of her coming to our house, we gathered everything and the six of us celebrated all it huddled together in my Mother’s small 2 bedroom apartment. It was very different but it was also truly very special. One month later, on January 20, 2017 my Mom passed away peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by her family. 

My wish for you this holiday season is that you are surrounded by the love and comfort of family and friends. And may you find peace and joy on your caregiving journey.

I hope you found this helpful. Please leave me a comment or send me an email at Pat@PatThorne.com

So until next time, take care of yourself and know that there is

…help for the journey

2 thoughts on “Good Grief! How DO you get through the holidays?”

  1. Thank you for the anticipatory grief and good grief portions in particular. I was hoping that processing my anticipatory grief would make it easier when the time comes, but alas, I see that it will not. Merry Christmas!


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