5 Ways to Plan for the Holidays after the Death of a Loved One

Facing the Holidays

An empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, a present that won’t be opened, the expectation of a holiday visit from a loved one who won’t be coming. Facing the holidays after the death of a loved one is difficult, especially the first few years.

Nothing can ease the sorrow that comes with knowing the holidays will never be the same, but there are some things you and your family can do to help you cope, enjoy your time together and honor a deceased love one during the holidays.

1. Ask each family member to give thoughts and preferences about participating in holiday preparations and traditions.

A family meeting will help you discuss the role your loved one played in your holiday traditions or festivities. Did Mom always bring the pumpkin pie? Did grandad always say a special prayer? Maybe you and your Dad always put up the Christmas tree together. By talking about what you’ll miss most about your loved one's absence, you and your family are taking the first step in coping with your grief.

2. Review all holiday-associated activities. Consider what to keep and what to change this year.

If you and your family decide to continue with holiday family traditions, maybe someone else can fulfill the role of your loved one. Replicating Mom’s pumpkin pie can be a comfort to everyone and a great way to honor her memory. Each member of the family should do only what they feel most capable of handling, and everyone should honor the choices made by the entire family.

No one says you have to do things the way you have in the past. If you usually went to the deceased’s house for holiday dinner, this year you may decide to go someplace different or stay at home. It’s okay if you don’t feel like decorating or putting up the tree. If you do, invite family and friends to help. This will lighten the mood and add a festive feeling. It’s okay if you don’t feel like attending a religious service. If you do, invite someone to go with you and share a special time together.

This is not the time for big expectations. Feelings of grief ebb and flow. You may feel upbeat and energetic one moment and overwhelmingly sad and tired the next. It is a time to be kind to yourself and to help others understand how you feel and what you need.

3. Decide how to include the memory of your loved one in holiday events.

The chair may be empty, but your loved one will be present in your mind and heart throughout the holiday season. You can include them in family gatherings by lighting a special candle when you gather or by placing notes in a box to read and share later. After the Thanksgiving meal is eaten or after the presents have been opened, while you are all together, look through photo albums and tell stories about your loved one who is gone. This can make you feel connected to each other and to the loved one who died.

4. Respond to holiday invitations.

Holidays are full of parties and get-togethers. You should plan to be with people you enjoy, even if just for a few moments. To make going easier, ask a friend to accompany you, and stay only as long as you want. Ask your host if it’s okay to accept or decline at the last minute, since you’re not sure how you’ll be feeling. And allow yourself to decline invitations you don’t want to accept.

5. Realize that your fear of the holidays may be worse than the reality.

Sometimes just the thought of being around happy party-goers can make your grief more noticeable. It’s hard to watch as life goes on around you while you’re still stinging from the death of your loved one. But the fear of going through the holiday season without them may be worse than the reality as you surround yourself with family, friends and others who understand what you’re going through. During the holiday season, allow yourself to enjoy “golden moments” when you can see the joy of the season peeking through the shadows of your sorrow. Your loved one would want that for you.

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