Honoring a departed loved one in joyful times

4 min read

Celebrations after someone you love has died

  • When you’re grieving, some of the most difficult days can be holidays, anniversaries, and other important dates.

  • Remember, you are not required to celebrate holidays exactly as you did before your loved one died. Let your grief determine what you can handle.

  • If you do want to participate in a celebration, consider incorporating your loved one’s memory into the occasion.

  • You can create new traditions—everything from sharing memories of your loved one to setting a place for them at the dinner table—that feel meaningful and joyful to you.

Those who have suffered the loss of a loved one often say they continue to feel the presence of the person in their life, no matter how long it has been since they passed away. The love you shared and the effect they had on you are still with you.

Early on, in the most intense days of grief, this can be a painful feeling, an ever-present sense of the empty space they left behind. But in time, many people find it to be a source of strength and even hope, a way to honor the person’s memory while moving forward.

Whether the person died a long time ago or quite recently, the feeling of them being with you in spirit often becomes most acute on holidays, anniversaries, and other significant dates.

Those days can be challenging for someone in grief. For one thing, they may remind you that time is passing and you are getting further and further from the days when you had the person in your life.

Because these are often celebratory occasions, you might struggle with guilt over allowing yourself to feel joy while you are grieving their loss. Or you may want to feel merry but find that you are unable to, which can be difficult and isolating when you’re surrounded by others who are celebrating.

No matter how you are feeling when a significant day arrives, there are strategies you can adopt to help you get through it. Many people find comfort and value in creating new traditions on these days, giving space for their loved ones’ memory to become part of their celebrations. 

Don’t force the joy

As the day approaches, you may feel pressure to make it feel “normal.” Remember that there is no rule that says you must celebrate holidays the same way you did before your loved one died, nor would it be possible to do so. You should commemorate them in the way that feels right for you and your grief.

If this means skipping the holiday entirely this year, do that. There will be other holidays, and this one will come around again next year. If it means a quiet celebration with immediate family, feel free to turn down all invitations to bigger parties. And if you want to be among revelers, that’s good too, as long as you remain realistic about what you are and aren’t ready for.

Prepare for your emotions

Even at the best of times, planning for important events or holidays can be stressful. When you add in the unpredictability of grief, it is easy to become overwhelmed. It helps, therefore, to be prepared for the unexpected.

So, for example, if you decide to go to a holiday event, make sure you have an exit strategy in case it all becomes too much, like letting the host know when you arrive that you might need to leave early. Alternatively, you can talk beforehand to a friend who will be there and ask them for permission to pull them aside during the party and talk through your feelings.

Bring their memory to the party

Sometimes at a formal celebration like a wedding, the hosts will find a way to include those who are no longer with them. They might display portraits of departed loved ones among the decor, and a note about their presence at the event. If you are planning a gathering on a special day, whether large or small, this is just one of the many ways you can integrate their memory into the event.

Find a tradition that brings you comfort and joy, and feels appropriate to honor your loved one. Maybe it’s as simple as starting a ritual of lighting a candle during dinner, or setting a cherished object on the table as a reminder of their legacy. You could even leave an empty chair, set a place at the table for them, or cook their signature dish. It might be as simple as giving a short speech about how you believe the departed would feel: proud, elated, full of jokes—whatever you are moved to say in the moment.

If it is someone else’s celebration and you don’t feel it is appropriate to make a public gesture, you can seek a quiet few minutes with a family member or friend to reflect on what your loved one would’ve brought to the atmosphere of the joyous day. 

Keep the mood light

At a bigger celebration, you may be concerned that discussing the memory of a loved one will bring down the party. Public grief does make people uncomfortable, and while it is not your responsibility to guard their feelings, it may be a good idea to consult with a friend about what to say, when to say it, and how long you should speak.

If you’d like to make a speech or have a moment of silence at a party hosted by others, it’s important to communicate with the hosts or the person being celebrated to make sure that they are okay with it, and any guidelines they’d like you to follow.

In general, try to keep your tribute short and focused on the good in the room, like expressing how proud your loved one would be of those present, or how happy they would be if they could see you all gathered like this. It will go over well with everyone, and mean a lot to family members who are also missing them at this special moment.

Be flexible with celebrations

Because everyone processes grief in their own way, various members of your family may feel very differently about whether and how to mark the occasion on important days. You may feel like it is too soon for you to celebrate, while others may feel that it is the right time, or even need the relief of a joyous day. There is no right way to do this, and if that means having multiple holiday scenarios in the same house, that’s okay.

Don’t try to impose a cookie cutter version of grief on the whole family by demanding that they all gather for a festive meal, or that you all visit the cemetery together. Let them know that you are there for them to hear what feels right for them and will help them have that holiday experience as far as your own grief will allow.

If they don’t know what they want, try offering some of these suggestions about bringing your loved one into the celebration. Present these ideas as neutrally as possible, to avoid making them feel pressured into doing something. Tell them that whatever they feel is right, and that no matter how different those feelings are, you are all united in trying to create a space for your loved one’s presence within this important day. With time and reflection, you will find the style of memorialization that feels right for your family and the person you all loved ●