6 Tips for Coping with Loss During the Holidays

holiday grief
Image via Katie Hurley

Many people look forward to the holiday season.  It’s typically a time to reconnect with family, take some time to slow down and reflect on the year, and – of course – spread some holiday cheer.

Even when spirits are bright for a moment, the memories of good times with a loved one can remind us of the magnitude of the loss.

But for people grieving a loss, the holiday season can feel overwhelming, empty, and exhausting.  Even when spirits are bright for a moment, the memories of good times with a loved one can remind us of the magnitude of the loss.  In essence, the celebrating and connecting that is a very natural part of the holiday season highlights the absence at the table.

Grief comes and goes in waves, and it can be a very personal journey.  But while loss can feel completely overwhelming for both parents and children, it’s important to find ways to keep the holiday spirit up for young children, even when a loved one is missing.

6 Tips for Coping with Loss During the Holidays


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Preserve the memory, not the loss:

Anything can trigger feelings of sadness when grieving a loved one during the holiday season.  It might be a favorite meal, a favorite chair, or a favorite picture.  Feelings are everywhere when family gathers, and this can make it difficult to cope.

It’s important to preserve the memories of the loved one missing from the gathering, instead of repeatedly discussing the loss.  When we share happy memories during family gatherings, we show children that people exist in our hearts forever.  When we focus on the funny stories and touching memories of holiday past, we preserve the memory of our loved one. 


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Rely on honest communication:

If the holiday season feels a little less festive following a loss, talk about with your family.  Children tend to internalize what they see and hear.  If mom and dad are overwhelmed with sorrow and unable to get into the spirit, children are likely to internalize feelings of sadness and anxiety.

Be honest but brief when speaking to your children about your feelings of grief.  Let them know that you are feeling sad, but that you are still looking forward to celebrating as a family.  

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Keep it small:

Sometimes people try to surround themselves with as many people as possible to avoid overwhelming feelings of grief.  This can backfire.  Large crowds can feel like a burden when you’re carrying around enormous feelings.

Keep your gathering small this year and shift the focus to your kids instead.  A small, scaled back holiday reminds us to remain focused on what truly matters – family.


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Continue traditions:

A great way to help kids focus on the positive is to continue to a favorite holiday tradition of that loved one.  Whether it’s a certain dessert or a night of caroling, carry it on and talk about your loved one while you do it.  

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Set realistic expectations:

For children, grief often manifests as anger, exhaustion, and/or frequent tantrums.  Sometimes kids even experience opposite emotions (such as laughter at inappropriate times).  For adults, grief can trigger anxiety, depression, and/or exhaustion, to name a few.  In short, grief changes everything,

It’s important to set realistic expectations for the whole family during the holiday season.  Keep social gatherings short.  Skip parties if some family members aren’t up to it.  Ask for help with shopping, wrapping, and cooking.  Keep your kids on their normal schedule and don’t expect too much from them when it comes to socializing at large family parties.


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Give back:

Volunteering and helping others can heal the soul.  It also promotes family bonding.  Consider volunteering this holiday season.  Think about an organization that might hold some meaning for your loved one, and talk to your kids about giving back in honor of your lost loved one.

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6 Tips for Coping with Loss During the Holidays

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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  1. Allison says:

    I stumbled across this article while cruising Pinterest and although currently we’re not in the holiday season, the article still helped me. Ive lost many family members all within a short time frame, the two hardest ones were my mother & my grandmother. Being only 24 when my mother passed it just didnt, & still doesn’t seem fair. Theres still many, many times when I wish I could share something with her, or go to her for advice, or comfort. Trying to spend the next holidays reminiscing on her memories will hopefully help.

  2. Felicia says:

    This was the first Christmas without my grandpa. It was really hard. But we had his earn sitting in his chair so he was still with us.

  3. jesster131 says:

    Strangely I was doing fairly well with this first christmas without my grandmother until I saw this article. Now I’m sitting here wanting to cry & missing her. Glad my son is already in bed. He will never get to remember her.

  4. Gramma says:

    It has been almost 5 years since I lost my son to suicide. He was 14. I won’t say the holidays get easier, you just figure out a way to keep going. With our new little granddaughter this year may be a little easier. Maybe.

    • Gramma, so sorry for your loss. Those grandbabies do help ease the pain – my mother definitely felt that they helped her make it through the day sometimes after we lost my brother. Best wishes to your family this holiday season.


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