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Handling Holidays and Difficult Times

From Harvard Health Publications and The Washington Post, 2008

Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and events that would otherwise be joyful can be especially hard on people who are grieving. If the grief is fresh, holiday cheer can seem like an affront. Celebrations may underscore how alone people feel.

Likewise, it's hard to accept that others may not mark the days that you do — the first time you met your loved one, a birthday, or the anniversary of an illness or death. The following strategies may help people ease pain around holidays and other difficult times.

Start a new tradition. People can remember their loved one on special occasions by placing a lighted candle on the table, leaving an empty chair, or saying a few words of remembrance. If the person who died always played a special role in festivities, another family member may be able to carry on the tradition.

Ask for advice. It may help some people to talk to others who have lost people close to them to find out how they have managed holidays.

Plan to mark the day. Others find it helpful to make special plans for an anniversary, birthday, or other special day. Think of a ritual to help you connect.

Examples include:

  • Walk through a nature preserve, in the woods or on the beach.
  • Visit the cemetery or the place where ashes were scattered.
  • Enjoy an activity your loved one would also have loved.
  • Light a candle and say a prayer.
  • Carry a memento from your loved one.
  • Go to a special holiday celebration at a place of worship where you can
  • enjoy the music and other rituals, sitting where you can easily ‘escape’ if
  • you need to.

Share your sentiments: Sharing and hearing stories about your loved one can be very healing. At your holiday dinner, ask 'Can we start with a prayer for the one who died?' David Kessler, a Los Angeles based expert on grief and loss suggests.

Light a candle. Go around the table and have everyone share a favorite memory. If folks at the table aren't so inclined, find a private moment to say that prayer or otherwise honor that memory. Include your loved one in your conversation.

Once others realize that you are comfortable talking about your loved one the may be more inclined to share stories that will add to your pleasant memories.

Develop a Plan A and Plan B: Plan A may be, I'm going to go to Thanksgiving dinner, Kessler offers. Plan B can say that, If it's too rough, too hard to be with everyone, I'm going to stay home and watch his favorite movie, take a walk through a favorite place of ours. I'm going to give in to grief if it overwhelms me.

Kessler says that when people go into holiday events with a Plan A and a Plan B, "They usually make it through dinner. Without Plan B, they feel only emptiness. With Plan B, they feel sadness but not emptiness."

Cancel the Holiday: "Many find comfort in the holidays, the routine, the deep spiritual connection," Kessler says. "But if it's too hard for you this year, it's really okay to cancel a holiday." Kessler cites the experience of the actor Anthony Perkins’ family after Perkins died. "The first Christmas, they decided to go on with Christmas, not matter what," he says. "But the following year they looked back on that and felt it had been painful and mechanical and hadn't allowed for their grief. So they canceled Christmas the second year." Taking a year off, Kessler explains, lets you and your family "go through your feelings without pressure to be joyful and fun." Starting the third year after Perkins’s death, Kessler adds, his family was able to "create a new Christmas."

Seek a sympathetic ear: "If you feel you're not able to function, to find balance, to find any distance from the pain, seek help," Dale Larson, professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California, advises. "Find a grief support group, where you'll find instant empathy from people who have suffered similar losses." Don't like groups? Look for an individual counselor. Or, use our Drop-In group for the holidays.  Hospice of Santa Cruz County has helped thousands of people through their grief journey. If you'd like information on our services available to help through our Grief Support Program, please call (831) 430-3000 or visit our website at

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