Tips for Coping with the Holidays when you're grieving

Advice From Hospice Foundation of America, Kenneth J. Doka, HFA Senior Consultant

A question commonly asked by bereaved people at this time of year is, "How can I get through the holidays?" There is no single answer. One important guiding principle is: do what is comfortable. This advice comes from Hospice Foundation of America, a non-profit organization educating the public about loss and end-of-life care.

Kenneth Doka, PhD, HFA Senior Consultant, recounts a session with a group of widows. "One woman whose husband recently died asked, 'Who should sit at the head of the table?', taking her husband's place. I asked the group how they had handled it. One woman placed her youngest grandchild there to remind the family of its continuity. Another said her eldest son sat there. Another woman said that she sat there since she was now the family leader."

Which response was right? "They all were. Each response met the needs of the person, and each was a comfortable choice," explained Doka. This is the key to coping with the holidays: find the way that is right for you.

"When we are already experiencing the great stress of bereavement, the additional strains of the holidays can create unbearable pressure," commented Jack Gordon, HFA President. [Note: Mr. Gordon served as Chairman and CEO of HFA until his death in 2005.]

Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, emphasizing the familiar. Others may wish to avoid old sights and sounds, perhaps even taking a trip. Others will find new ways to acknowledge the season.

Whatever your response, remember these points:

Plan for the approaching holidays. Be aware that this might be a difficult time for you. It's not uncommon to feel out of sorts with the celebratory tone of the season. The additional stress may affect you emotionally, cognitively, and physically; this is a normal reaction. It is important to be prepared for these feelings.

Recognize that holidays won't be the same. If you try to keep everything as it was, you'll be disappointed. Doing things a bit differently can acknowledge the change while preserving continuity with the past. Different menus, changing decorations, attending a different service, or even celebrating in a different location may provide that slight but significant shift. However, be aware that your feelings will still be there. If you decide on a change, be careful not to isolate yourself.

The holidays may affect other family members. Talk over your plans. Respect their choices and needs, and compromise if necessary. Everyone (including yourself) should participate in ways that are comfortable.

Avoid additional stress. Decide what you really want to do, and what can be avoided. Perhaps cards don't need to be sent, or shopping can be done by phone or catalog.

Do the right thing: not what others think is right, but what you need and want to do. 

Tips From HFA:

  • Plan for the holidays

  • Recognize holidays will be different

  • Communicate with family members

  • Avoid additional stress

  • Do what's right for you!