🎶 Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love. New Year's just ain't New Year's without the one you love. 🎶
The tree is decorated, lights are strung throughout the streets, and holiday cheer is in the air.
Yet you feel alone and your heart feels darker than ever. The Christmas music is unbearable and there’s an overwhelming emptiness that takes over every thought.
If you’re grieving the loss of someone important to you this Christmas season, you may resonate with this lack of holiday cheer.
Know that you’re not alone. And no, you’re not the grinch.
You have every right to feel what you’re feeling during this difficult time, even when everyone else is celebrating the holidays in full swing.
With grief, there’s no schedule that fits everyone’s experience.
While some people may openly express their emotions, others may compartmentalize their grief and avoid their emotions. Some people may mourn for years as they experience this hard time, while others may bounce to their new normal rather quickly.
There are an infinite number of factors that go into an individual’s grieving experience, so it’s difficult to predict exactly how each person will respond to a loss. However, one thing we do know is that the holidays are often a stark reminder of those no longer present.
“When we love deeply, we mourn deeply; extraordinary grief is an expression of extraordinary love. Grief and love mirror each other; one is not possible without the other.” ― Joanne Cacciatore, Bearing the Unbearable
Know that whatever you’re experiencing this holiday season, whether it’s anger, sadness, joy, relief, or a combination of feelings, is totally normal and to be expected.
The First Christmas After a Death of a Loved Can Be Hard
If this is the first Christmas you’re going through without your loved one, know that it’s completely normal for life to feel like it’s been flipped upside down and that everything around you is happening in a blur.
What used to bring you joy this time of year may trigger you to experience extreme sadness, anger, and guilt. Or maybe you feel nothing at all. And that’s okay.
You may be feeling the physical effects of grief this holiday season, and so it’s important to be patient with yourself and what you’re feeling. Take deep breaths and bring your attention to the present moment as often as you can.
While going through this Christmas season without your loved one won’t be easy, you will survive. You will get through it.
Christmas Day Without a Loved One Never Gets Easier
Whether you’re going through the first Christmas after the death of a loved one, or it’s been 30 years since you lost your grandmother and bringing out old ornaments triggers unexpected sadness, holidays without the ones you love will likely always be an emotionally challenging time.
For many people, the second holiday is much harder because the first holidays were a blur, people cut themselves a break during the first holidays, other people gave them a pass during the first holidays, or people expected to be in a better place the second year. In essence, the second year becomes much more “real.”
Christmas time filled with cheer, traditions, and love, can be triggering for anyone who’s lost someone important in their life. And it can be triggering at any point in a person’s journey with grief, whether the loss was yesterday or 50 years ago.
Ways to Cope With Grief on Christmas
We all often have fond memories with loved ones around the holidays, and when our loved ones are no longer there to reminisce in those memories and create new ones together, our hearts can grow heavy and a feeling of isolation easily takes over.
We can begin to operate from a standpoint of loss. We focus on what we no longer have and the person we miss.In these moments, we can acknowledge what we’ve lost and then take a moment to remember what we do still have around us.
We have the memories of the person we lost, our breath, those still around us, and so much more. We can shift to an attitude of gratitude and live in a way that would make our missing loved one proud.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, so to speak, you were the one who has passed away and your loved one is here. What would you want them to do? Would you want them to be miserable and depressed over the holidays?
No I don’t think so, you would want them to be happy, begin to put their life back together and enjoy this time of the year once again. So be still and listen to your heart, you’ll know what to do from there.” ― Richard Kauffman, Grief and the Holidays
Don’t put too many expectations on yourself.
Going into the holidays, it’s easy to assume that everything will continue as it always did. The shopping, cooking, wrapping, hosting, and party-going is a necessity. But is it?
When grieving, it’s important to let go of expectations of the could-haves and should-haves that accompany continuing with the regular holiday traditions. These expectations can force us into avoiding our emotions and putting on a front to get through.
Be honest with yourself during this time and create a holiday schedule with as little or as much activity that allows you to feel what you need to feel.
“There is no right or wrong way to handle the holidays. You are in complete control of your plans as to what you will do during this time of the year.” ― Richard Kauffman, Grief and the Holidays
By taking the time to plan ahead, you can have more control over your holiday season and do what makes sense for you. If you feel more comfortable driving yourself to the family party so that you can leave early if you want, do that.
Express your needs.
Friends and family don’t always know what to say or do when others are grieving, especially since everyone handles grief differently.
Leading up to the Christmas celebration, take the time to email, text, or call the family you plan to see over the holiday. Give them a glimpse into what you’re feeling and your plans.
The more you can express what you’re feeling and what you need with those around you, the more they will understand how they can support you. If you prefer to talk about the loved one you loss and share memories, let friends and family know. If you prefer not to talk about them, that’s fine too.
The more you share with your loved ones, the more supportive they can be for you. And, if you’re running into unsupportive family or friends, remember it’s okay to walk away from them in order to put your needs first.
Give yourself time.
As mentioned earlier, there is no set schedule for grief and everyone’s experience will be different. Pause and listen to what you need this Christmas and take time for yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.
Whether it’s stepping outside to get some air and reflect after dessert, going home early from the family dinner and crying to an old favorite movie, or deciding to stay home this Christmas unlike last year, know that you have the option to create space for yourself to feel exactly what you’re feeling.
“Tears shed for another person are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of a pure heart.” ― José N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love
As the years go on, you may need less time to yourself to process everything that’s going on. However, in the beginning, allow yourself as much time as needed to sit in whatever you’re feeling.
Talk to friends or family.
When someone you love passes away, you may feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. It can be very therapeutic to find a trusted friend or family member to open up about what you’re experiencing, feeling, and thinking.
You may even consider giving yourself and others permission to share stories and favorite memories about your loved one.
This may help you find a connection to the one you lost while beginning the process of adjusting to Christmas without them by your side.
Open up to friends and family you trust most and allow them to share what they’re experiencing in response. While this may bring up emotions, know that you’re surrounded by people who love you and want to support you through your grief.
Talk to a professional.
If Christmas is feeling overwhelming, know that you’re not alone. In fact, there are grief support groups all over the country that can be a great resource for you to join the company of others going through loss.
You can also check Grief Share’s website for local Surviving the Holidays workshops that help guide you through the whole process.
Finding a grief therapist in your area who specializes in helping people through grief during the holidays is a great way to get one-on-one professional help during this tough time.
If you have a therapist you already work with, schedule an appointment with them to discuss the loss you’re facing and let them know that you’d like to address your grief leading up to the holidays with their help and support.
Consider starting new traditions.
If your old Christmas family traditions are too much to handle or if you simply want to find a way to honor your loved one this year, consider starting a new tradition.
Maybe this year you ask everyone to bring their favorite memory of your loved one to share at the table, dress in pajamas for Christmas eve dinner, or even start the meal with dessert first.
Whatever new tradition you think of, know that it’s something you can choose to use as a one-time tradition to switch it up this year, or carry it on moving forward in following years.
Write your thoughts.
When you’re feeling alone and wishing your loved one was still in your presence, writing down your thoughts in a journal is a great way to express what you’re feeling with no recourse.
Whether it’s writing down the emotions you’re experiencing, memories from past years, or what you wish you could share with your loved one now that they’re gone, they’re all great choices. There are no rules for writing.
Journaling can be a new tradition in itself. By taking the time to write every year, you’ll have your journal as a reference to see how your experience changes over the years.
“This is why I talked about focus, to help with your focus try journaling your thoughts and feelings as you work through your grief and the holidays. As this can be of great help in the future to measure your improvement.” ― Richard Kauffman, Grief and the Holidays
Ways to Remember a Lost Loved One on Christmas
While there will always be a void from the loss of your loved one, there are many things you can do to remember, honor, and become connected to their life during Christmas.
A great way to find a connection with someone you’ve lost is to continue on their favorite Christmas traditions, honoring them in the process. Think about all of the past traditions your loved one enjoyed doing during Christmas. Take one or a few of the traditions and create a small ceremony around it.
Even if you change nothing throughout your past traditions, sometimes just thinking about your loved one while everything continues as usual will help you connect to them and their memories.
And if you’re fresh out of ideas, we’ve compiled a list of ideas to help you remember and honor your lost loved one this Christmas.
1. Purchase or make a personalized Christmas ornament.
Find a unique ornament for the tree that sums up a memory you had with your loved one or something they loved - whether that’s a sports team, animal, or place. It doesn’t need to be expensive and you can even create one if you’d like to express your creativity.
2. Embrace good memories during Christmas traditions.
What do you remember about your loved one at Christmas? Did they enjoy bringing the wine? Hanging up the stockings? Writing all the Christmas cards? Or were they the first to help with the dishes?
Think or talk about your memories of your loved one as you experience these traditions without them this year. Maybe you even step in to do the tradition they led previously. Embrace the good memories you were able to share with them.
“We can also find moments of comfort in positive reminiscences of the lost loved one. These positive states do more than propel us out of sadness; they also reconnect us to those around us. Laughter in particular has a contagious effect on other people, and in our research we’ve shown this to be true even during bereavement.” ― George A. Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness
3. Listen (or sing) their favorite Christmas songs.
Did your loved one always enjoy the Charlie Brown Christmas album or love the song Rockin Around the Christmas Tree? Or maybe they dreaded the Christmas songs and preferred listening to Frank Sinatra as they cooked.
Take the time to listen, sing, and maybe even dance to their favorite Christmas songs to help you feel connected to the love and memories you shared. Remember, it’s okay to cry… so if singing one of these songs brings you to tears, that’s okay!
4. Watch their favorite Christmas movies.
What was your loved one’s favorite Christmas movie? Did they love the Christmas Story or the Grinch?
This year, ask your family members to watch your lost loved one’s favorite Christmas movie or simply watch it alone curled up on the couch once all of the chaos of the holidays settles downs.
5. Make a memory wreath dedicated to your loved one.
A memory wreath is a simply a wreath made with different photos or other keepsakes that remind you of your loved one.
Whether you print out new photos of your lost loved one, or find all of the old concert tickets they collected, find a way to make this wreath unique. Then, hang the wreath on your door to welcome visitors with their loving memory.
6. Prepare your loved one's favorite dish, Christmas cookie, or dessert.
Whether it’s a dish your loved one enjoyed cooking or eating, you can remember your loved one this Christmas by volunteering to prepare their favorite dish on their behalf.
Be mindful as you indulge in every bite of the dish, letting your senses enjoy the smell, taste, and texture of the food your loved one enjoyed so much.
7. Hang a Christmas stocking in their memory.
Whether your loved one already had a Christmas stocking in your home or you’d like to hang a new one on their behalf, keep their memories alive by hanging a stocking for them on the mantle.
If you have anything you’d like to share with them throughout this Christmas season, write it down and put it in their stocking.
8. Have a Christmas toast in their honor.
This year when everyone’s gathered together for Christmas, plan a toast to remember your loved one. You may even consider writing something to share with the group to help you prepare.
If this feels like too much, you can always create a toast in your home alone to your lost loved one. There’s no wrong way to do it.
9. Leave an empty seat or candle at the holiday table to honor them.
While this may intensify the emotions of grief for some, leaving an empty chair, place setting, or candle is a great way to allow the memory of your loved one to live on at Christmas dinner.
It may be a good idea to check with the host ahead of time and ask if it would be okay to leave a seat for your loved one.
10. Share memories and look at photos.
Dig up the old photo albums and ask other family members to do the same. Maybe even start a shared digital album and ask family members to contribute photos that include your loved one.
As you go through the photos, either alone or with family, discuss the memories behind the photos and point out the great qualities of your loved one. Laugh, cry, and simply feel whatever surfaces.
11. Volunteer in their memory.
Whether it’s feeding the homeless or spending time with rescue animals, finding a way to give back during the holidays is a great way to channel your grief into something that can help others.
Find a mission you know your loved one would have believed in supporting and spend some of your time this Christmas season volunteering in their memory.
You will get through it.
If you’ve lost someone important in your life, Christmas may be forever changed. This holiday season may not be easy… but you will get through it. And over time, the holidays will adjust to a new normal, just as you will.
Welcome the small moments of pleasure, joy, and gratitude this Christmas period. While they may seem impossible to find, they will be there waiting for you when you’re ready.
Remember to be patient with yourself, feel whatever it is you need to feel, and take time for self care this Christmas season. Grief is cyclical, and comes in waves of intensity.
The holiday season can be particularly intense, but you are not alone. Keep in touch with family and friends who want to help, encourage them to talk about your loved one and share stories. Grieving is not about getting over it. It is about learning how to live with it, and doing what you can to honor their life and the impact they made on you.