Navigating Holiday Grief Practical Strategies

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Navigating holiday grief is complicated and unique

Navigating holiday grief poses unique challenges throughout the season. Social calendars naturally get busier, family time is probably at peak levels, and attention to self-preservation often goes by the wayside. It’s not always easy to navigate holidays under normal circumstances, and it’s even more difficult when you’re also grieving the loss of a loved one. My hope is that the strategies shared here will help you strengthen and maintain your connection to your deceased loved one while navigating grief during the holidays with as much grace and well-being as possible.

Managing Social Calendars Realistically

You’re probably already inundated with social requests leading into the holiday season. There are the company holiday parties, the Friendsmas gatherings, and the added stress of trying to see as many friends as possible if you’re traveling back to your hometown for the holidays.

In some cases, you might genuinely be looking forward to seeing certain people or attending certain events. When you’re grieving, you may find that this isn’t the case, even if you used to be the life of the party.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword in many ways: if you decline an invitation, people may think you’re reclusive and “should be over” your loss by now. If you accept an invitation, you run the risk of people assuming that you’ve “moved on” and are “back to normal”, often failing to acknowledge in any way that the loss of your loved one is still crushingly painful to carry.

You’re allowed to accept a social invitation without feeling guilty that you’re having fun.

More importantly, you’re also allowed to say no, or ask for flexibility. When you’re new to navigating holiday grief, there’s likely going to be some trial and error involved, so give yourself some grace.

Navigating party invitations while simultaneously navigating holiday grief

If you’re invited to a party and you aren’t sure if you’re going to want to go, here’s a template to follow for declining gracefully, which you can put into your own words:

1. Express gratitude for the invitation (e.g., “Thank you so much for inviting me.”)

2. State the facts (e.g., “This is a hard time of year for me, and I’m not sure I’m going to be up for it”)

3. Clarify their needs / expectations (e.g., “Could I let you know that day how I’m feeling? I may need to leave early, so please know it’s not personal if I do. Would that work for you?”)

4. Reinforce that you value the relationship and are making an effort (e.g., “I’m still figuring out how to navigate this new reality and it’s complicated, but I’m doing my best.”

Following this approach, you’ll hopefully encounter fewer miscommunications and hurt feelings. Remember that the only people that will be upset about your boundaries are the people that take advantage of your lack of them. So if you’re invited to a party and you know immediately that it’s a “definite no”, you can follow the same model but modify to state definitively that it’s not going to work for you this time, but thanks anyway.

Responding when people give you unsolicited (and probably terrible) advice about how to grieve

How many of us have been on the receiving end of truly terrible (albeit usually well-meaning) advice on how to deal with our grief? I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there.

Especially at a heightened time of year when we’re navigating holiday grief, It’s understandable to feel anger or frustration when this happens. It’s not fair for grieving people to have to carry their grief and teach other people how to treat them, but it’s the reality.

No one is taught how to grieve, and no one is taught how to interact with those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. It’s new territory for everyone. 

When my youngest brother passed away, our entire family was shattered. There was the raw wound of the loss, and it was reopened every time someone said something completely terrible to one of us. It was clear right away that very few people knew how to “deal with us” anymore, so we had to figure out how to get ahead of it and tell people how to interact with us. Most people do mean well, but often fall short when trying to comfort the grieving.

It took a long time, but I was able to reach a place where I acknowledged my thoughts and feelings, experiencing them without reacting to them. Every feeling is temporary. Knowing this, I was able to respond more effectively when well-meaning people gave me or someone in my family terrible advice.

One acquaintance suggested that if my mom exercised more and did more charity work, she would feel better about her child dying. And that while they themselves had never grieved such a significant loss, they imagined that that was what would work for them. At the time, needless to say, this advice did not go over well. I wasn’t even present for the conversation and I still felt like I was choking on the white-hot rage that someone would dare tell my mom to give more and try harder when she had just lost her son.

So I fully acknowledge that I’m about to give you advice about “how to respond to bad advice” and maybe that’s a bit ironic – so if this advice seems “bad” to you, just leave it there – I will not be offended. Here it is. I’ve found the best response to unhelpful suggestions is:

“I appreciate that you’re trying to help, and what would actually help most right now is X, not Y.”

Let’s put this into an example. 

Well-meaning person who has no idea what you’re going through: “I think if you just focus on working out an staying active, that will really help you. I also think if you get involved in helping other people through charity work or something, that would be a great way to honor your son.”

(*I will note here that these are not objectively bad ideas, but they will never land the way they’re intended if they’re unsolicited and/or poorly timed.)

Grieving person response: “So, I get that you’re trying to help. But right now what I need is a friend to just walk with me on the trail to my son’s memorial bench (X). I don’t need to be reminded to exercise or volunteer (not Y). If you want to help, that’s what would mean the most to me.”

Again, I want to acknowledge that this type of response is very difficult to execute, especially when your loss is very new and you may be feeling out of control. Don’t admonish yourself if you’re not ready to try something like this. One of the (few) advantages of social media is that most of this B.S. advice comes in digital form, and you don’t need to respond right away, or at all. It requires a bit more self-regulation to pull this off in-person. If you get a random Facebook message giving you advice that doesn’t land or is outright offensive, you do not need to respond. Let yourself feel your anger. Let yourself feel your sadness. Let yourself feel your grief. And when it moves through you, when you’re ready, let yourself respond, if you choose, in a way that tells the other person how you expect to interact going forward.

Managing Family Expectations and Interactions when Navigating Holiday Grief

You may have already discovered that even if a family member passes away and everyone else in the family obviously lost the same person at the same time, you will all grieve in your own way. Throughout the entire year this is true, and it’s no different when navigating holiday grief.

It would be such a relief if every family was open, supportive and flexible with one another, but this isn’t always the case. Even if you would have characterized your family that way prior to your loss, you may find that grief can radically change how people interact with one another, even the people they love and are closest to.

If you’re in a situation where you’re being asked to change your behavior to conform to another person’s grieving preferences, here’s what you can do:

1. Acknowledge the impact of your grief expression on the other person (e.g., “I know it can be uncomfortable to be around me when I’m … crying, quiet, reminiscing, etc.“)

2. Let them know that your process is your own, not theirs (e.g., “…but it’s healthy and necessary for me.”

3. Remind them that they’re not a captive audience (e.g., “If you need to go to another room, that’s okay.”)

4. Let them off the hook (e.g., I know that we’re both just trying to navigate this the best we can, and this is what works for me. It’s okay if it doesn’t work for you.”)

You may have found by now that even when everyone in a family loses the same person at the same time, you will all still grieve differently. That’s normal, but it can be confusing to try to accept and navigate when people surprise you in hurtful ways.

It would be great if every family was flexible, supportive and open with one another. This is rarely the case even in a family that hasn’t experienced a loss, and it’s often even less realistic when a family is grieving. We tend to focus on what we need to do to survive the loss ourselves, and can get upset or frustrated when other family members aren’t communicating or behaving the way that we are, or the way that we expect them to.

We’ve all had the experience of wanting people to just behave the way we think they should, but we need to know how to respond effectively when someone wants us to change the way we grieve, to accommodate their preferences.

Managing when someone asks you to change how you grieve

If you’re in a situation where you’re being asked to change your behavior to conform to another person’s grieving preferences, here’s what you can do:

1. Acknowledge the impact of your grief expression on the other person (e.g., “I know it can be uncomfortable to be around me when I’m … crying, quiet, reminiscing, etc.“) 

2. Let them know that your process is beneficial for you (e.g., “…but it’s healthy and necessary for me.”) 

3. Remind them that they’re not a captive audience (e.g., “If you need to go to another room or prefer to spend time together later instead, that’s okay.”)

4. Let them off the hook (e.g., I know that we’re both just trying to navigate this the best we can, and this is what works for me. It’s okay if it doesn’t work for you.”)

It would also be worthwhile to try to pay attention to ways that you might be imposing your grieving preferences or expectations on those around you. Maybe you expected that everyone would prioritize spending all holidays together going forward, because now you all know that life can end at any time and we aren’t guaranteed another holiday season. To you, that might seem irrefutable and the only natural way to approach the holiday. To another family member, it might not resonate the same way. Instead of judging the decisions other people make to preserve themselves as they grieve, just let them exist as they are and love them anyway. That’s how you want to be treated too. It’s not your job to understand why people behave the way they do. 

Talk about how to honor your loved one with new traditions when navigating holiday grief

If your family is going to be together over the holidays, it can be really healing to collaborate on new traditions to honor your decased family member. This might be:

  • Setting aside time to share your favorite memories, especially those that other family members might not already know about.
  • Taking a walk to a special place that acknowledges your loved one, whether that’s a gravesite, a resting place for cremated remains, a park bench erected in their honor, etc.
  • Carrying on a tradition that your decased loved one originally established. For example, the last Christmas we had with my brother before he passed away, he had started a new tradition of gifting everyone with a small item that would appeal to all of us, and it was called the “Pickle Elf Gift” (long story). It was intended to be an annual thing, and the first year it was the Hamilton soundtrack for all of us to learn – his favorite musical. Everyone got a copy. Since his passing, I’ve continued the tradition when I host each year, providing a small gift to everyone present on Christmas day.
  • Choosing a special ornament for the Christmas tree that acknowledges the love you share (if you celebrate Christmas, or substitute for what works for your family)
  • Writing them a letter and keeping them in a safe place each year. In our family, everyone has an opportunity to write notes to my brother and add them to his stocking. Each year more are added, and they’re never removed.
  • Do something to support a cause that was meaningful to them in life, or do an activity together that they loved.

Whatever you decide, the most important thing is that it’s collaborative and everyone has a say. You can always do your own thing, but the shared ideas of what to do as a family unit will help you open up to new ways of grieving and understanding one another as you navigate together. This is especially important for grieving children who might be at a loss as to how to navigate on their own. It’s also important for adults who might otherwise not have an outlet or feel like they have a voice for their grief. 

Taking Care of Yourself

Leveraging mindfulness and movement for grief management during the holidays

Mindfulness and meditation have become a significant part of my self-regulation practices after experiencing the loss of my brother. While related, they are different things, and have supported many people in healthy grief expression. 

If you’re thinking about sampling a mindfulness or meditation practice, it can be a really valuable use of energy. The way to think about Mindfulness vs. Meditation is similar to Fitness vs. Exercise. You exercise so that you can experience a sustained level of fitness outside of the gym. You meditate so that you can experienced a sustained level of mindfulness in your everyday life. You can’t live your entire life in the gym, but you can move about the world with a fit, healthy body. Similarly, you can’t live your entire life in meditation, but you can live your entire life mindfully, with practice. 

Consistency is more important that duration. If you have 3 minutes, practice mindful breathing for 3 minutes every day. If you have more time, great. But don’t make perfect the enemy of good here, just start and see what happens.

As I’ve steadily increased the length of my daily mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve been able to experience deeper emotional connection within myself that I had previously suppressed, and I sense a stronger connection with God, my brother and my guides on the other side. When we learn to be still, even for just a few minutes, it’s amazing what we can tap into.

While I sit for longer periods now in meditation, when I first started out I committed to 5 minutes of mindful breathing each day, and experienced significant benefits just from that. Mindfulness and meditation bring you back to an awareness of the core of your spirit, which is unshakeable, and always connected to your loved ones even if they’ve passed away. I can think of no better way to start the day than with that awareness and sense of connection.

Movement is also an important component of healthy grief expression. It’s more than just a way to take care of the physical house your spirit lives in – it’s also an extremely effetive way to process and release built-up emotions.

When you’re living with loss, it’s like standing under a waterfall of emotion all day long. If you try to stop the water from falling on you, you’ll eventually collapse in exhaustion from the effort (and it doesn’t work). If you recognize that this is where you stand, and let the water flow, it will hit you, but then it will flow down and away. The key is to acknowledge it without resisting or trying to change it. Finding ways to incorporate movement helps to let the emotions flow through and away, like the waterfall. You may notice that if you spend too much time in a sedentary phase, it doesn’t take very long for your emotions to feel overwhelming and exhausting. 

You don’t have to go crazy with the exercise to feel the benefits. If you’re not super active right now you might want to explore gentler movement practices like yoga, walking, biking (my favorite! Nothing like crying in a dark SoulCycle class for 45 minutes) or swimming. Anything that gets you moving will be beneficial not just for your physical health, but your mental and spiritual health as well.

Proactive self-preservation and healthy boundaries

Another really important component of taking care of yourself year-round, and during the busy holiday season, is to proactively manage your own well-being and set healthy boundaries.

Part of this goes back to practicing how to handle social invitations and interactions with family without judgement or expectation. Another piece is looking ahead and recognizing for yourself what may be too many commitments, and scale back. Be gentle with yourself during this time. You don’t need to see everyone and do everything. You just have to do what is going to help you get through, and it’s easier to manage if you can look ahead at what’s coming up and decide where you want to participate, and where you want to gracefully decline invitations.

Remember that you’re allowed to take time for yourself during the holidays and year-round – it doesn’t have to all be about family and group activities the entire time. Solitude is an important and healing element of self-preservation. You can also take a look at ways to schedule activities that are solely for your benefit, whether that’s a workout class, a spa treatment, or just some alone time to read a book or watch a movie at home. If you know you have periods of respite coming up, and they’re already scheduled for you, it’s easier to make it through more emotionally taxing activities.

Notice where you’re setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, and adjust accordingly. And then see if there is an opportunity for you to release any judgement or guilt you may feel about your decision. If it’s not going to light you up, it’s not worth putting yourself through. You have nothing to prove to anyone.

Staying Connected To Your Departed Loved One

One of the most important things to remember during the holiday season is that your loved one is still with you even if you can’t always feel it. You can still support and grow that connection in a number of ways:


  • Write and talk TO your loved one, not just ABOUT them. They’re always sending messages and hoping to connect with you, even if you don’t see them yet. I talk to my brother every day, throughout the day, and know he’s with me.
  • Schedule time for meaningful activities connected to your loved one, and know that you can grieve openly during that time vs. “acting normal”. Christmas is especially difficult for our family now because it was the most important holiday for us growing up and we had such incredible memories. Now when I decorate the tree in my house, it’s a special time when I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack my brother gave me, and talk to him while I hang ornaments and string lights.
  • Set a place at the table for them just as you would if they were physically alive. Their spirit is still very much alive. A friend of mine who makes beautiful handcrafted items knew about our family’s tradition of always setting a place for my brother at special meals like birthdays, weddings and holidays. She created a small placecard sign that said “Reserved For Thomas” that we can set at his seat, and it’s one of the most meaningful things I have with me now during special events.
  • Establish a tradition that incorporates them – something they’d appreciate that doesn’t feel forced. Invite them to participate in spirit, or to sit with you while you talk to them. This doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; for me it’s just lighting a candle and picturing my brother sitting with me when I’m eating pizza from our favorite place and watching our favorite TV show.
  • Experiment with creative outlets that remind you of your loved one, whether it’s painting, singing, learning an instrument, or building something. Doing something constructive and inviting your loved one to hang out with you during that time can be very powerful. Before my brother passed away, I got really into crochet as a creative outlet. My brother went with me to the craft store to buy all of the gray yarn they had in stock so that I could crochet a new blanket. He passed away before I could make the blanket, so when I was finally ready to take out the yarn and crochet, I pictured the day that we bought it and visualized him sitting with me as I worked. When the blanket was finished I was able to have something new that he’d been a part of since the beginning, and when I’m wrapped in it it’s like getting a hug from him.

Remember that you are in charge of your own grief experience this holiday season

At the end of the day, you are the one that has to choose what navigating holiday grief will look like for you, and what will be most supportive.

Even if a specific idea above doesn’t quite resonate, maybe it prompts you to think about what will work for you.

I really appreciate the Grievers Holiday Bill Of Rights that’s always floating around the internet this time of year (written by Angie Cartwright, slightly modified below), so will leave this with you. Feel free to print this out or keep in mind on your own journey in navigating holiday grief:

  1. I have a right to cry during the holidays at anytime and anywhere; crying is healthy for me.
  2. I have the right to share about those I grieve during the holidays; I honor their memory in this way.
  3. I have the right to cancel all holiday activity for myself; this is not selfish and I am honoring my own journey as I heal.
  4. I have the right to do other activities without guilt or explanation. There are no rules when it comes to grieving.
  5. I have the right to add more of my rights about my grief because we all grieve differently.

From my family to yours, I wish you the most peaceful and meaningful holiday season possible, with deep connection to your departed loved ones who are always with you.

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