Dealing with the Holidays after a Loss

snow fallingSome of us live from holiday to holiday; as soon as one is behind us we start thinking about the next. We anticipate and prepare as we look forward to celebration and togetherness.  After a loved one dies holidays can become the exact opposite of what they once were.

In the years following a loss, fears and anxieties about dealing with the holidays are common.  Some people decide to skip the holidays altogether, while others decide that they must face them.  Regardless of what shape your holidays will take, in order to effectively deal with them you must first accept that things will be different and that many traditions will change.  Then you should make an effort to anticipate, prepare, and plan for the elements of the holiday that will be the most difficult.    

The Family Services Team at The Living Legacy Foundation would like to offer you the following plan for dealing with the holidays:

1. Think about who you will be spending the holidays with.  Consider the events leading up to the holidays (shopping, parties, food prep, decorations, etc) and the actual holidays themselves.

2. If you will be spending the holidays alone or with people far removed from your loss, grab a journal or a notebook and complete the plan on your own. If you will be spending the holiday with close individuals who share the same loss, call a family meeting to discuss your holiday plan.

  • Let everyone know the purpose of the meeting.
  • Plan the meeting date early so people can really think, process, and plan.
  • Emphasize that it is best for everyone to be present.
  • If people can’t make it, have them on speakerphone, Skype, or FaceTime. You could also start a Facebook group, blog, or e-mail chain for group conversations and updates.
  • Include even the youngest family members. Children need to have a chance to express their feelings and concerns. It is also good for them to feel included and to have a chance to give input.

 3. Traditions – Keep, Change, or Skip: Identify the rituals, traditions, and events where your loved ones absence will be felt the most.

  • Have each family member discuss what will be hardest about these identified events.
  • Brainstorm ways to make the event easier and/or ways to support one another throughout the events.
  • Ultimately you may decide to keep the event or tradition the same, change it, or skip it until next year.


Skip: Your family throws a holiday party around the same time each year. Your    mother was always the party planner. No one feels its right to hold the party this year nor is anyone willing to take on the party planner role. You decide not to hold the party this year, your family and friends will understand.

Change: Your eldest daughter always lit the second candle on the menorah. You know that her absence will be felt here more than anywhere else this holiday season. You decide that on this night you will allow your next eldest child to light the menorah candle and elsewhere in the house you will light a special memorial candle for your daughter. You will each share a favorite memory of her after the candle is lit.

Keep:  You and your brother always sang together in the Christmas Eve service. You know it will be very sad to sit there along this year, but you know that your choir members will be there

lights color4.  Discussing Roles: It may be that your loved one traditionally had several roles and responsibilities during the holiday season.

  • You may have addressed many of these during your discussion of traditions and events.
  • You should take a little time to make sure there aren’t any other smaller roles that will need to be filled or changed.
  • Some people may not be comfortable stepping into these roles, respect their feelings and do not push.

5. Finalize Your Plan – Finalize your plans for those identified traditions and events.

  • This may happen at a follow up meeting after everyone has had time to think.
  • Discuss what support needs you think you might have (I may need someone to come to the school holiday show with me) and discuss how you can offer support to others (I will help you with the dinner menu plans this year).
  • Also discuss if there are things you just can’t muster up the energy to do such as shop for gifts or go to holiday parties. Small things can take a lot of energy when you are grieving so give each other permission to skip some of these things.
  • Make a plan to follow up with family who aren’t present but who should be involved.
  • Make special time to spend with children.
  • Make sure that roles and responsibilities are not falling disproportionately on one person. Share the roles and responsibilities whenever possible.

6. Incorporating Your Loved One in the Holidays: In planning for your holiday traditions and events you may have already decided on ways to incorporate your loved one into your holiday. If not, find opportunities to remember and celebrate your loved one. You may want to start with the traditions where they are most greatly missed. Here are a few suggestions:lights bw

  • Start a new tradition of visiting the cemetery or a place that reminds you of the loved one. Allow children to bring a drawing or a small gift
  • Look through photo albums, scrapbooks, and home videos
  • Visit friends or relatives who were close with your loved one (especially if you are facing the holidays alone). Ask them about your loved one and their memories of them
  • Light a special candle
  • Have a special mass or worship service in honor of your loved one
  • Purchase or make a symbolic ornament
  • Make a donation/volunteer in your loved ones honor
  • Set a place at the holiday table for your loved one or invite a special friend to come to dinner and sit at their spot
  • Buy a gift that reminds you of your loved one and donate it
  • Give your loved ones special belongings as gifts to friends and family who would treasure or enjoy the object
  • Have a special place – like your loved ones old stocking – where family members can write down and leave memories. Read them when the whole family is together.
  • Ask people to bring your loved ones favorite dishes for a potluck holiday dinner.

7. Lastly, set aside time to take care of yourself.  Don’t expect for things to feel easy and don’t be afraid to cry – whenever and wherever.  Anyone who is struggling with a loss this holiday season is welcome to call the Living Legacy Foundation’s Family Services team at any time at 410-242-7000.


About Jennifer

Jennifer Gelman is the director of Communications for the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland. She is responsible for creating and executing educational and awareness programs for LLF’s donor service area, along with overseeing the company’s volunteer program, and the relationship with Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration. With nearly ten years of experience in non-profit and cause-related marketing, on a national and local level, Jennifer is focused on raising awareness and creating an open dialogue about organ, eye and tissue donation throughout diverse communities the organization serves. Follow Jennifer on Twitter:
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