Grieving the Loss of a Loved One During the Holidays


By Marcia Patterson Vanard

The signs of the approaching holidays are everywhere! Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanza and New Year’s are just around the corner, reminding us of the sacred faith traditions and family gatherings these holidays will bring. 

But for those who are grieving the death of a loved one, holidays can be especially difficult, evoking feelings of anxiety, sadness and emptiness. Even if grief isn’t fresh, holidays serve as an annual reminder of the loss – not only of the person who has died but of the traditions and activities that are forever changed.

Watching others who are caught up in the joys and the business of the season can feel harsh. They force those who are grieving to feel overlooked, as well as overwhelmed by all the ways life has changed. This is particularly true of the first year as traditional holiday activities may simply be too difficult.

Wake Me When It’s January! 

“Every great loss demands we chose life again.” Rachel Naomi Ramen

The anticipation and dread of the holiday season can produce more grief and anxiety than the actual day itself. In fact, many facing their first holiday after a loss say they wish they could sleep right on through the season and wake in January. It is important to be gentle with yourself. Let others know what you need and what kind of day will work. Maybe it will mean you won’t host the holiday meal this year or even decorate your home. But it doesn’t mean this will be a permanent decision. It is simply what is right for you this particular year.

Be Honest with your Feelings. 

“There is sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief….and unspeakable love.” Washington Irving

The loss of a loved one changes you forever. There is no getting “over it” or “through it.” Therefore, it is unrealistic to think you won’t find yourself feeling out-of-step with others during holiday activities. Own those feelings and don’t apologize to others for the heaviness you are carrying. Your feelings are a normal reaction to the great loss you have experienced. Let those who are closest to you know you are fragile. Explain that you may have times where you will burst into tears and other times you may laugh out loud. Let them know their presence is a treasure to you, as is their willingness to let you feel what you need to feel.-

Find Ways to Honor and Remember.

“When the heart grieves over what it has lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left.” Sufi Epigram

Like precious photographs you can view any time of the day or night, memories are always with you. They can be sparked by the touch of a hand, a particular fragrance or hearing a favorite holiday song. While they can bring you to tears, they can also provide comfort and assurance.

Here are some suggestions for ways you might honor your loved one’s memory this holiday season.

  • Say a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of your loved one. If it is too difficult to attend holiday services within your faith community, trust that your prayer can be offered anywhere.
  • Spend some time outside or even gazing from your window. Nature has a powerful way of offering calmness, encouragement and a sense of connectedness.
  • Consider purchasing a large candle that can be designated as your candle of remembrance for family gatherings during the holidays, as well as throughout the year.
  • Share stories with friends and family. This is not only how memories are preserved for generations but how wisdom is passed along.
  • Donate your time or your money in memory of your loved one this holiday season. Even the smallest gift or act of kindness can lift someone up. It will feel good to both of you!

Marcia Patterson Vanard, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is currently the Director of the Counseling and Education Center at Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro. She provides grief counseling, educational presentations and consultations on end-of-life concerns to individuals, families, and groups. Previously a Hospice social worker, she has helped patients and families cope with the difficulty of terminal illness, caregiving and anticipatory grief.

The Counseling and Education Center of Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro offers support to those impacted by the serious illness or death of a loved one. They provide individual counseling as well as grief support groups. To learn more about these services and to access other educational resources contact Tammy Chaput at 336-621-5565 or


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