Holiday Grief: Coping With Loss During the Holidays

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For those who are coping with a loss, grief during the holidays can be a particularly difficult time. Other notable times such as birthdays and anniversaries can also be painful. Gathering together with friends and family only emphasizes the absence of a deceased loved one. However, there are some things you can do to help yourself or a loved one through this difficult time.

Understanding Grief

If you have never experienced the loss of a loved one, it may be difficult to understand exactly what the grieving person is going through. The first step to comforting a loved one is to understand what they are going through.

Grief is a process made up of five distinct stages. These stages can occur before or after the death has occurred and will apply to both the person who is dying and those who love them.

All people are unique in their grieving process, but the stages often look something like the following.

Denial and Isolation

A person in this stage talks about the future, avoids talking about the illness, blames the doctor for the illness, claims that the test results are wrong, and may avoid family and friends who want to talk about these matters.


The anger stage typically occurs when the person has come to terms with the fact that they or a loved is actually dying. This person begins to ask "Why me?" They may question their faith or religious beliefs. They may accuse family members or friends of uncaring attitudes.


At this stage, a person has vented all their anger and now tries to make a deal with God or higher power that if they change their lives or fulfill some other promise they will be allowed to live or to live long enough to complete some special task.


At this stage, the person realizes that death will be inevitable. If the person has already died, this is when the reality of death has begun to sink in for loved ones. There are two types of depression that can occur during this stage. Depression may be due to the change of circumstances (financial, family role, intimacy, independence) or it may be due to the loss itself. This stage is what is referred to as Holiday Blues when it occurs around the holidays.


For the person who is dying, acceptance may be exhibited as a decrease in interest in worldly events, a desire to be left alone, a decreased desire for communication, and an increase in detachment from loved ones. For the survivors, this will be a time when healing begins.

How to Support a Loved One Through Holiday Grief

When helping support a friend or loved one through their grief, be prepared to listen, reassure, and make yourself available.

Be a Good Listener

Your friend may need to talk about what has happened, their feelings about it, or just to reminisce about their lost loved one. Don't try to force your loved one to discuss things that they are not ready or willing to share. Just be a good listener and try to show that you care.

Provide Reassurance

It's very common for a person to feel guilty, perhaps feeling that they could have done more. Let them know that they did what they could. People may also experience survivor's guilt. Remind them that they are loved and look for ways to focus on things other than the loss.

Be Available

This is especially true immediately after the death and during holidays and other special events when the loss is most keenly felt. Grief and depression can cause people to withdraw, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even doing small things like calling, texting, or dropping by for a quick visit can show that you are there to offer support whenever your loved one is able to accept it.

Help Out With Errands and Other Tasks

Depending on the situation, a grieving person may feel too overwhelmed with emotion to do even simple tasks; they may be having to deal with funeral arrangements or medical care. They may be having to take up the slack for a spouse who is no longer around to help them. Ask what tasks they may need help with around the house. Prepare a meal, volunteer to make phone calls, or offer to drive your friend to appointments.

Practical assistance such as organizing meals, babysitting, and bringing in groceries can be very helpful when a person is grieving.

Be Patient

If a loved one refuses to accept your invitations to dinner or other social events, be patient and keep asking. They will be ready in time, and you will be there when they are.

Be Understanding

The grieving person may be angry and upset and take their anger out on you. Understand that they are going through a difficult time and don't hold it against them. Just keep offering steady, unconditional support. In time, your loved one will move onto other stages of grief and will be better able to handle feelings of anger and distress.

Keep in Touch

Write letters, send sympathy cards or flowers, or call periodically. The person who is grieving may not always be able to convey how much these gestures mean, but reaching out is a great way to show your love and support.

What Not to Do

Helping someone you love through their grief also means knowing what not to do. Even people with the best intentions can make the following missteps.

Don't Avoid Them

Don't avoid your friend, even if you feel awkward or unsure of what to do or say. Don't worry if you don't know the right thing to do or say. Your presence and the simplest of gestures may be all that is required to help.

Don't Pressure Them to Stop Grieving

Each person grieves in their own time and their own way. Let them cry, scream, or sit quietly while you hold them. Whatever it takes to get their emotions out is OK.

Don't Hide Your Own Feelings

Don't hide your grief or avoid the subject because you don't want to upset them. Instead, grieve together, hold each other and cry, or talk about the times you both spent with the person who has passed. If you don't mention the person at all, it may, in fact, feel as though you don't even care or understand how they are feeling. Open the communication lines.

Don't Rush Them

Don't advise them to let go of clothing or personal effects before they're ready. Each person grieves in their own time. "Out of sight, out of mind" does not apply to someone you've loved deeply. Some people may want to let things go fairly quickly, while others will want to hold onto sentimental objects long-term.

There's no right or wrong way to grieve, so don't pressure someone to do something that they are not ready for or comfortable doing.

Don't Say "You Can Have Another Baby"

Each child is a unique person. One baby can never replace another. Don't philosophize or try to make things seem better. They're not. Instead, express your sincere sorrow for their loss, offer the support that you can, and try to simply be physically present to comfort your grieving loved one.

Don't Say, "It Was for the Best"

Realizing this doesn't diminish the pain and sense of loss. Even if the loss was after a long and painful illness, it does not make the grief any easier to deal with. Trying to make philosophical sense of someone's death can make it seem like you are minimizing the loss. Instead, simply say "I'm so sorry" and "I'm here for you."

Don't Say "I Know How You Feel" Unless You Really Do

These are just hollow words unless you have been in the same situation and can offer suggestions about what helped you to heal. Even if you have dealt with the same type of loss, remember that every situation is still unique and that everyone copes with grief differently. In many cases, it may be more helpful to simply offer your understanding rather than make suggestions to "fix" the situation.

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.