Navigating Loss During the Holidays

The holiday season can be particularly challenging, especially when it’s the first one following the loss of a significant loved one or, for children in foster care, the first holiday without their family. It can be a daunting task to figure out what to do or where to find any semblance of joy. Balancing our grief, anger, and disappointment alongside festive elements like cookies, decorations, and presents can seem nearly impossible. How do people manage to get through that first holiday?

Since the holidays often involve family gatherings, the weight of grief can be even more pronounced, with each person carrying their own pain into the day. Complicating matters, individuals are at different stages of their grieving process. Some are still in shock or denial, having little to say and less ability to hear, perhaps glued to the TV set. Some are holding back tears in the back rooms of their souls, while others may be barely holding it together. Some feel confused, angry, and betrayed, while others want to “keep it together” for the sake of everyone else. It’s important to remember that as a family, we will be just that—a mixed bag of pain and needs. What is right for one person may not be right for another.

So, how can we navigate this? Here are some suggestions for grieving together. It’s important to recognize that not everyone in your family will want to participate, and that’s okay. It’s not disloyalty; it’s just a different side of grief.

Create a shrine: Set up a quiet space away from the holiday commotion, perhaps a shelf, with a picture of the missing loved one. Let everyone know that you put it there so that each time they think of that person, they are invited to put an object next to that picture. It could be a seed, a seashell, a spatula, whatever is meaningful to them and readily available. Allow this to be a personal and private moment without questioning anyone about it. Near the end of the day, invite your group to look at all these objects and share their reasons for putting them there if they want to. If no one shares, just observe the objects and have a moment of silence.

Reserve a seat for them: Set an extra place at the table and explain that it is a symbol that those who are missing are not forgotten. They still occupy space in our hearts and minds. Take some time to talk about what your loved one enjoyed about the holiday, share some favorite memories, and raise a toast of gratitude for the person you had. If you pray, ask God to watch over them and to comfort your family.

Rip it up: Gather some old phone books or larger paperbacks. Begin by saying, “I hate it that…” and fill in the blank. Then, rip up a piece of your book. Let the other person go next. Take turns sharing your frustrations. At some point, you may be ready to stop talking and might want to just go ahead and rip up the whole book without interruption.

Read a book: There are some wonderful children’s books that can help everyone grieve or at least feel better about grieving. Be sure to sit side by side, barely touching, and talk as you go. Write a goodbye letter: Write down all the things you wish you had said. Then, write about the things you had hoped for that never happened. Explain how inconvenient it was for them to leave at this time. Tell them about the hole that cannot be filled without them. If you have folks who don’t want to participate… simply go and sit next to them on the couch or pull up a chair. If it feels right, sit close enough to touch. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t speak; just be present and in parallel with them. Be aware of the type of energy they have. Are they engrossed in a video game? Lethargic and bored in front of the TV? Or maybe they are a bit glassy eyed, zoned out. Feel their energy and be present. Give it several minutes. They may surprise you and begin talking to you. Let them lead the conversation. It’s an awfully nice thing to be lost in denial and have someone visit you who doesn’t demand that you deal with your grief. It may not seem like it at the time, but they noticed.

For more tips on navigating the holidays, sign up for our Holiday Stress class in November. See class listings for more information.