Facing the first holiday season without your loved one

4 min read

How to handle the holidays after someone you love dies

  • You may feel the absence of the person who died more acutely because of festive celebrations.

  • Respect your own grief. There is no need to hide the pain you feel with family and friends.

  • Remember that others are grieving as well, and at family gatherings your grief may lead each of you to react in ways you do not expect.

  • Give yourself permission to rethink old traditions or put them on hold this year, depending on how you feel.

  • Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms like heavy drinking, and protect your mental health to lessen the strain of this holiday season.

When a loved one has died, your first holiday without them can be a daunting milestone. What was once a joyous time of year to gather with friends and family can feel especially lonely and painful.

You may be missing your loved one more than ever because they’re not there to carve the turkey, to cook their signature dish, or to deliver their annual hilarious, heartfelt toast at your holiday party. At the same time, the world around you is going into festive mode.

For these reasons, “the most wonderful time of the year” may feel strange and disorienting, because you’re feeling their absence in a new way and you are faced with the reality of how different your annual traditions are going to be.

There are, however, some simple ways you can prepare as you head into the holiday season, so you can cope with whatever challenges it throws at you.

Don’t hide your pain

Especially because the spirit of holiday season is so entwined with the idea of gathering with loved ones, there’s no need to downplay your sadness. It is often best to try to embrace it and lean into it, for example by spending the day reminiscing about the person who has passed away. You may even want to make them a part of the festivities, by leaving an empty seat at the table, or putting up pictures of them.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel strong enough to even mention their name, that is completely fine, too. Be honest with your family and friends about that. No one is expecting you to be 100% yourself under the circumstances, so don’t try to be.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Respecting your own grieving process, and your own needs, is an important step toward moving forward in a healthy way.

Expect the unexpected

How will it feel to look around the table and see a familiar scene, but with one huge difference? You can’t know in advance how you’re going to react to their absence—nor can you know how others who are also grieving their loss are going to behave.

While being there for each other in your shared grief can be beneficial, you should prepare for the possibility that it may be messy. Everyone grieves differently, and the holidays may affect them all in various ways.

Some people may want to talk about their sadness, anger, or resentment. Others may prefer to celebrate the life of the person and even try to ban expressions of grief. Interactions could be fraught and go in unexpected directions. If you mentally prepare yourself for surprises, you'll more easily roll with them and enjoy the day.

Be flexible with traditions

Maybe your loved one always led the post-Thanksgiving family turkey trot. Maybe the Christmas tree was their exclusive domain. Or maybe their coquito recipe was worth waiting for all year.

You may want to leave these traditions in the past for now, if it’s too painful to think about “replacing” them. On the other hand, it may feel right for someone else in the family to honor their legacy by stepping into their role.

Again, there are no right or wrong answers in dealing with these traditions—but thinking about the questions ahead of time will help you navigate the minefield of emotions that they can bring.

And of course there’s no reason you can’t create new traditions that incorporate your loved one’s memory. Inventing new traditions can be cathartic, especially if they involve honoring your loved one in a way that’s comforting for everyone. Let others who are also dealing with the loss help you come up with these new traditions, so they can feel invested and you are not shouldering all the responsibility.

Put your mental health first

Because this will be a singularly stressful holiday season, make sure you are doing what you need to do to stay mentally healthy. That might mean letting someone else host dinner this year, or skipping the cookie swap if you don’t have the energy to bake, or just deciding what you really need is a quiet holiday at home. You only have so much to give, so don’t overextend yourself.

Be as cognizant as you can of your mental state—and this includes how much merriment you indulge in at holiday events. Drinking can be a useful (temporary) coping mechanism, but leaning on it as you deal with your grief can be unhealthy and unhelpful.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, or partaking in too much unhealthy coping behavior, then do not hesitate to seek out a therapist, mental health counselor, or support group. The holiday season is difficult for many people, not just those who have lost someone, and talking to others who are also emotionally suffering can help you feel less alone during this time of year.

Finally, remember that every holiday will not be this hard. It won’t be the same without your loved one, that is true, and every year may present unique new challenges. But as time passes, you will find yourself incorporating their memory and your love for them into the season in the way that feels right to you.

For this year, give yourself extra care—taking it day by day, or minute by minute if you have to—and extend latitude to others who are also hurting. It’s not a normal year, and the more you embrace that, the less stressful it will be ●