Coping with the Holidays

By: Nancy Hancock
Monday, October 5, 2020


James Reid Funeral Home

Bereavement Support Program

Presentation by Nancy A. Hancock

October 5, 2020


             Here it is already October. The Jewish people have just celebrated their High Holidays.  Next week is Thanksgiving, and then in December it will be Christmas, then New Years.  The year of firsts.  The holidays; birthdays; anniversaries; Mother’s Day; Father’s Day; Valentine's…and on it goes.  I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you! Tell me, how many of you are in the first year of the death of your loved one?  How many have already gone through the first year of holidays and special days?


            This year’s holidays bring an added heartbreak—all of us are being asked to forgo the traditional family gatherings due to Covid 19.  Everyone’s holidays will look very different from whatever we are used to.  For those who are grieving the death of a significant someone, it may even be a relief to be “off the hook” in terms of hosting or attending a large family gathering.  Or it may only magnify the loneliness you are feeling. Everyone’s reaction to this year’s holidays, especially if you are grieving, will be unique .  All are normal. There is no right or wrong way to face the holidays and other special occasions when in grief.


            For those in your first year:  which holiday have you found the most difficult thus far?  Which one are you particularly dreading? Why?

            For those who have passed the one year mark:  which holiday did you find the hardest?


            Thanksgiving:  it is a time of expressing our gratitude and feasting with our families.  But what if you are not feeling at all grateful and are dreading going through the motions without the emotions.  Then, immediately after Halloween, sometimes even sooner, the stores are already filled with Christmas decorations and the Christmas music is blaring in the mall. 


            As we think of the upcoming religious holidays and all their traditions, the thought of getting through them may be overwhelming to you.  You may just want to skip them altogether and crawl into bed until the holiday season is over. If that is how you are feeling, you have a great excuse to do just that this year—Covid 19.

            It’s as if these times of the year have a way of magnifying our grief in ways we aren’t expecting, whether it is the first year or the fifth.  The anniversary of the death of your loved one is also likely to trigger feelings and emotions you thought you had worked through.  You may have made some significant progress in your experience of grief, but one of these special days will bring back the familiar feelings of loss and pain in full force.


            This evening, we are going to look at some of the common feelings we go through as we face annual reminders of the death of the person we love.  We will share ideas for facing and trying to cope with the special days throughout the year.


            Since Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays are the ones coming up next, what was that first Christmas like for those of you who have been through it already?  What was most difficult?  Did anything help?  How did you get through it?


            As we think of facing the holidays, it is good to remind ourselves of the common and normal feelings of grief.  Though we discuss these emotions each time we meet, the feelings can easily be magnified during holiday times or other special days.  For some, the death is recent and the feelings may be new and frightening to you.  Grief is sometimes exacerbated or increased by the expectations of something that “should be” a happy time.  Feelings of sadness and grief on these special days is a common and normal part of the grief process.  The familiar patterns of life are changed—for some more than others, depending on your role in the family and your relationship to the one who has died.  If you were the caregiver, the change and loss of that role can devastate you.  Your everyday routines have been disrupted, especially in the first year.  This can lead you to feel anxiety or panic.  On special occasions you may feel as bereft as you did in the early days of your grief.


            What are some of the normal and common experiences of grief that most people go through?  What are some feelings that you have experienced?

            There may be anxiety and fear, sadness and loneliness.  You may experience confused thinking, longing, irritability, guilt, and hopelessness. You are unable to change what has happened and unable to control the roller coaster of feelings.


            There may be physical reactions such as exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, dreams and nightmares, loss of appetite, stomach problems, chest pain, repetitive thoughts, difficulty breathing, disinterest in the activities of daily living, and depression.

            Many of us try to hide these feelings from others, especially during the holidays, in an attempt not to ruin the day or lose control of our emotions.  So we stuff down our feelings until we are alone, when we can express them fully and not hurt anyone. 

            This is not a healthy way of dealing with grief.  Symptoms will become worse and we may feel very alone in our grief.  It is important to be able to share your grief with others who have experienced a similar experience, and with those who love us, so that we are not all alone with these difficult feelings.

            As we are open with others about our feelings, we can receive support and help in the long and difficult journey of grief.  A group like this one can help to break through the silence and we know that we are not alone in the frightening feelings that we have.


            All of the feelings and emotions we have just discussed may become magnified during anniversaries, birthdays, and the holidays.  Conversely, you may instead feel numb.  The absence of feelings may leave you feeling guilty, confused or distressed.  You may be concerned that your reactions are not normal.  Has anyone wondered this?


            One thing is certain:  these annual reminders and holidays are going to come every year, and the first year of them may be the hardest.  Yet they will not go away as we sometimes wish they would.  And there is no magic bullet to help us prepare for and face the challenges that these occasions bring to us.  Often it seems that the anticipation of the day is worse than the day itself.  It may surprise you that there can also be moments of joy amidst the sorrow.  Or it may be very painful, but you will get through it. 

            There are many coping tips that we will share tonight, but, as always, they are only suggestions and not a prescription that will necessarily make these days any easier.  Some may help, and others won’t.


            Above all, in facing a difficult holiday or special day, make room for your feelings.  Acknowledge that you find it very hard, talk to your friends and family to get the support you need.  Try to make a plan that gives you some control over what the day will hold.  Keep some traditions, make some new ones, and let go of some others.  Do what will give YOU the most comfort on the day, while still remembering that others may be going through their own grief as well. Talk together about what will be most helpful to each one of you.


            Celebrate a special day by taking time to do something in memory of the person who died:  lighting a special candle, planting a new plant or shrub in the garden or the cemetery, making a donation to their favourite charity, or buying a bouquet of their favourite flowers or yours. What are some things you have done in memory of your person?


            The anniversary date of your person’s death is particularly significant, in that you will have survived an entire year without someone who was very important to you.  You may be dreading this date.  For those of you who have gone through this anniversary date already, what was it like for you?  How did you get through it?  What helped you?


            It may be helpful to make a little plan ahead of time, for how you will spend this day.  Would it be better to be alone, or to spend some time doing something nice with a friend or family member?  If you are with someone, don’t be afraid to share your memories with them. This will allow them to open up and share some of their own stories of your loved one.  You can then laugh and cry together instead of alone. 

            If you still feel too raw to be with someone on this day, what might you do to nurture yourself?  Don’t feel guilty if all you can do is to stay in bed, binge watch Netflix, and eat chocolate and potato chips.  Some have found that listening to music which is healing for you and lighting a candle will help release the healing flow of tears.  Or looking at a photo album.  You might want to talk to your family, or perhaps you won’t want to talk with anyone.


            On other occasions like a family wedding or reunion, it is sometimes helpful to bring a “support person” with you to help you get through the event.   It is also OK to give yourself permission to skip what you think will be an event you can’t cope with. Or you might want to tell the host ahead of time that you may have to cancel at the last minute or to leave the event early, if you find that it is too much for you to handle.


             For many of us, grieving or not, December is the most difficult time of the year.  There are so many expectations of “The Perfect Christmas”.  We try to please everyone but end up not pleasing ourselves or anyone else.  Memories of past holidays with those who are no longer here can magnify feelings of loss and sadness.  It is very likely that you will feel extra vulnerable at this time. You may even be dreading December.  This is all very normal.  Shopping for gifts and wrapping, cooking, baking, and decorating seem hollow and such a burden this year.  It is difficult for some to attend the religious services they have always enjoyed.  That is why we have our Candlelighting Ceremony on Dec. 7 instead of our usual bereavement support evening.  It is a non-religious service for those who are finding the holidays difficult, who don’t feel very merry due to their grief. It is a service which acknowledges these feelings and honours our loved ones who have died.  


Take some time to think about what you are finding most difficult to face this holiday season. 

             As we’ve said, the common wish of wanting to skip over the entire holiday period and not participate in it at all is made very difficult by the inability to avoid the constant barrage of the sights, sounds, and commercialization of the holidays.  The energy you would spend evading it would be better spent recognizing the reality of your loss and how you might instead be able to find some hope in new ways.


            Remembering that there are no easy answers to the challenges of facing the holidays with heavy and sad hearts,  there are, however, some things you can think of doing which might help and maybe even give you a glimmer of hope.   It is important not to decide in advance that the approaching holidays will be horrendous. It will certainly be different than past years and there will be sadness, but let your heart be open to trying some new things to make it less so. 



            This involves not only your expectations, but those of others you care about.

            This is a time to be loving and take thoughtful care of yourself, thinking about what you feel and what you need to do and NOT do this season.  Be patient, kind and compassionate with yourself.  Give yourself permission to do what is most helpful to you.  At the same time, remember that there are others grieving this loss also. Some of the traditions may be important for them to carry on.  Talk with each other about how you might adapt them to acknowledge your present reality, or to make some new ones. 

             For instance, if the one who has died always read the traditional story or sacred reading (ie. the Night before Christmas; Luke 2; the Passover Haggadah) to the family, is there someone else who would be willing to take on that honoured role?  Is there another family member who might host the family dinner, or to take on the cooking at your house?  Perhaps you can change the setting of the meal and go out to a restaurant instead in order to simplify the stress of preparing a large meal and to avoid that “empty chair”.  Of course, this year, of necessity, many of us will “pare down” our traditional big gatherings.

            Speaking of the obviously empty chair at the table, if we choose to remain at home with family, how could you possibly deal with that empty chair?  Have some of you found ways to cope with that very visual reminder of your loss?

            Some choose to actually set a place at the loved one’s usual chair as a silent reminder of that person and a way to honour the memories everyone had of him or her. If that is too difficult, you can move the chairs around to fill in that empty place that your loved one always occupied.  Or perhaps YOU might now occupy that place of honour.  Again, planning ahead will allow you some control so that you are not blindsided by the absence of your loved one.


            Most families have several traditions.  Which ones are still meaningful for you to keep, and which ones have outgrown their meaning?  Do you want to let go of all your traditions, or perhaps just simplify them?  Are there new traditions which you can create going forward?


Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Buy or make something that is a special keepsake of your loved one, such as an ornament or wreath.
  • Make a donation in your loved one’s name which is meaningful to you.
  • Buy a poinsettia or other plant or flowers for your synagogue or church in memory of your loved one.
  • Choose wisely the events you will attend, taking care not to become overwhelmed. When going out in the evening, leave some lights and music on. It helps when coming home to an empty house.  In our current times, we all have a very good reason to minimize these events and to stay home.
  • If you want to be alone on the holiday, consider volunteering at a turkey dinner for the less fortunate.  There are usually several which are offered.
  • Plan ahead and prioritize.  Decide what is really important to you and let go of the rest. 
  • Reach out to your loved ones and let them know your limitations this year.  Accept offers of help.  Don’t try to go it alone.
  • Many people don’t send Christmas cards anymore.  However, a card or letter may let the people you don’t see often know of the death.  You can enclose the little memorial card.  You will then receive encouraging messages from them.
  • If putting up a tree and decorating seems too difficult this year, consider a pre-lit, predecorated small tree instead, or forego the tree altogether.
  • Plant a tree in a special place and watch it grow year after year.
  • Be grateful for any small moments of joy that you feel. Your loved one would want that. Cherish the memories of holidays past, and talk about them.  Tell the funny stories, laugh and cry together.
  • Make plans for the days after the holidays.  You may feel a post-holiday letdown.


             As well as taking care of yourself emotionally, there is the importance of taking care of yourself physically.  Eating healthy foods and not overindulging in food and alcohol is a good start.  Try to get a little exercise in each day, such as a brisk walk.   Grief work is exhausting, you need plenty of rest each day in order to cope with the emotions of grief which are heightened during holidays or other special days.

            If all this seems too overwhelming to you, don’t beat yourself up.  Do whatever you feel able to do, even if that is nothing at all. Allow yourself to just be, instead of all the doing. Next year will be easier.


             Is there a particular day that you are dreading? Can you think of any new ways of dealing with that feeling of dread?  If you can’t think of one thing, that is ok too.  Maybe in the coming days it will become clear to you what you might do.


            Remember that it is also OK to be happy at this time of year.  This doesn’t diminish how much you love and miss the person who has died.  The love you shared will always be with you, the memories will be part of you always.  Embrace it all:  the joy and the sorrow, for it is all part of this life, isn’t it?

            If you live alone, now might be the time to ask a friend or relative if you can join their “Covid bubble”.  That way you will have somewhere to go for holidays if you don’t want to be alone.

Before we know it, the holidays and the other special days will quickly pass, and you will return to a more normal routine of easier days. 




Facing the Holidays! A holiday resource for those grieving the loss of a loved one.  James Reid Funeral Home.

Presentation Notes by Dorothy Messenger.

Tinsel and Tears, a holiday help.  Bereavement Publishing, Inc.

Holiday Help, hope and healing for those who grieve.  Accord Aftercare Services.

“I Can’t Face the Holidays”, by John Kennedy Saynor. Genesis Bereavement Resources.

Facing the Holidays after Your Loss.  AfterLoss Inc.


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