Grief and the Holidays

By CAC2 Organizational Member Katie Holcomb (Ryan’s Case for Smiles)

When you’re grieving the loss of your child, holidays are tough. Instead of bringing joy and good tidings, the holiday season can increase feelings of sadness and loss. Even if you don’t celebrate a winter holiday, watching others come together can make you miss your child and old life, even more.

While this is expected, it does not mean it isn’t hard. Below are a few ideas to help you manage grief this holiday and future ones to come.



Am I Grieving?
As the holidays draw near, you may notice changes in you and your family. Even if you’ve been mourning awhile, your grief may grow or shift as important days approach.

Grief looks different for everyone and over time. Below are some typical reactions you may see in yourself and your loved ones.

Common Signs of Grief

  • Sadness
  • Fear or worry
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Numbness
  • Disobedience
  • Regression or bedwetting
  • Substance use
  • Indecision
  • Poor concentration
  • Headache
  • Stomachache or nausea
  • Body pains
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue or lethargy

How to Cope with Grief During the Holidays
The first step in coping with grief is recognizing that the winter season can be hard. Some find the holidays most difficult, while others find the lead-up challenging. Either way, this time does not have to be miserable or a total loss. Once you recognize things are different, you can make a reasonable plan to help your family regain peace and joy.

Set Reasonable Expectations While Grieving 
Before entering the whirlwind of the holidays, it’s important to set reasonable expectations for you and your family. Grieving takes a lot out of anyone, and you may not feel like celebrating at all. What you thought you could do won’t work this year, and you may also mourn that loss. Remember, it’s okay to take it easy. Nothing is required, and you can return to traditions later on. Leave lots of time to work through your feelings and care for your body as well. Regular meals, exercise, and rest are essential, and this is doubly true when you’re going through a hard time. Finally, share your plans with others so they know what to expect and what your holiday will involve.

Maintain Holiday Traditions (Or Don’t)
Holidays can be painful simply because traditions act as a reminder that things aren’t as they were. You will inevitably compare previous years to this one and notice all that has been lost. Yet the pressure to maintain traditions often is high.

If you need permission, I give it to you freely: Only do what feels right and say no to everything else.

Skip difficult holiday activities. Decline an invitation. Be ‘selfish’ and pass on making the dish that your deceased child loved. On the other hand, if holiday activities make you happy, feel free to do it all!

There is no right or wrong way to grieve – or celebrate a holiday.

Accept Your Feelings (And Others) After A Child’s Loss
Complex feelings will arise before, during, and after a holiday or significant milestone. This is normal – for you, a partner, your children, friends, and extended family as well. Rather than fight these feelings and try to ‘just be positive’, accept and sit with each one. It can be helpful to journal, talk with a friend, or relax as you process it all.

This is also true for your other children, who may find imaginative play or drawing helpful. Siblings may struggle as they compare plans with friends or are forced to give up even more things they love. Kids may also pick up on your sadness or stress, even if you think they’re
too young to know what’s happening.

You may get frustrated as your child seems to act out, regress, or struggle to listen more as the holidays approach. Unfortunately, this is normal. It may be helpful for both of you to have an open conversation about their feelings. While you may worry about bringing up a painful topic, odds are they’re already thinking about their brother or sister’s death. They may be trying to protect you as well.

Start by asking what’s on your child’s mind and how they feel about the holidays. Then, help them name their feelings, validate their experience, and strategize coping methods.

Finally, be prepared for the inevitable ups and downs as you move through the coming weeks. You may feel happy one moment, only to suddenly start crying the next. Because it cannot besaid enough there is no right or wrong way to feel. Accept and be kind to yourself and others as you slowly navigate this difficult time.

Honor a Lost Loved One During the Holidays
After losing your child, it can be healing to honor their memory during the holidays and special occasions, even creating new traditions for years to come. Below are suggestions to get you started. Feel free to come up with your own and include your child’s siblings as well.

  • Light candles.
  • Please talk about your child, write about it, or post on social media.
  • Look at favorite pictures, watch videos of your loved one, or share favorite memories.
  • Make a card or write a holiday letter with your child’s photo. Feel free to continue to mention them in holiday cards.
  • Place a picture of your deceased child or a sentimental item, such as their stocking or lovie, among holiday decorations.
  • Make a toast or take a moment of silence before a big meal.
  • Set a place at the table for your lost child.
  • Make your child’s favorite food or participate in their favorite holiday activity.
  • Donate in memory of your child, or volunteer for a worthy cause.

Ask for Help While Grieving
Everyone needs help during the holidays, and grief makes this even more true. Chances are your friends, neighbors, and family also want to support you but need to figure out how. Make a list of things you need, including emotional support. Or share useful resources, such as

Finally, if you’re struggling, contemplating hurting yourself or others, or your grief interferes with daily life, please seek professional help. Psychologists, therapists, grief counselors, and support groups are all great places to get support. There is no shame in getting help and no right or wrong time to begin. For more information on therapy, please speak to your doctor.

It’s Okay to Have Fun After Losing a Child
Finally, and most importantly, remember it’s okay to be happy and have fun. Just because you enjoy a holiday doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten your lost loved one. Everyone needs a break. And it can be said with certainty that your child would not want you to be unhappy for too long.

Yes, the holidays can be a painful reminder of the absence of your child and the future you’ve lost. Surprising little things may trigger you, and you may feel like hiding in bed until the season ends. But remember, holidays can also be wonderful, providing comforting traditions, time with family and friends, good memories, and joy.

We wish you a happy, healing, and peaceful holiday. And remember, we’re here to help you cope with it all!