How to Survive Holidays After Losing a Loved One

I met grief as an adult in my late twenties. My step-dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and he died almost exactly one year to the day of diagnosis. Forty-five days later we were spreading his ashes in Northern Wisconsin when we received another heartbreaking call: my father-in-law had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Sixty days after that, my husband and I lost a friend in his early 40's unexpectedly due to an unknown heart condition. A year and a half after that, I tragically found my Dad who had passed away due to alcohol withdrawal complications. Six months after that, my close girlfriend passed.

I share this not to overwhelm, but rather to say, yes, I’ve experienced loss and with it all-consuming grief and hopelessness.

Grief is strange and twisted. The journey we (my husband and I) are on is unique. Navigating grief is emotionally and physically exhausting. It sneaks up when we least expect it.

I’ll never forget watching our families mourn these monumental losses during the holidays. With the holiday season upon us, I wanted to share some tips I hope others may find useful for surviving the holidays after losing a loved one.

Be realistic

Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable by not trying to make it something it isn’t or hiding your pain. Be realistic about what you can and simply cannot do. Try your best to organize your time, as grief leaves little energy.

Listen to your heart

Become aware of your own needs and express them to family and friends. Remember, it is okay to say “no.” If you can’t decorate the yard, decorate the house. If the house seems too much of a chore, decorate a room, possibly a corner. Do what you can.

Adapt cherished traditions

Although you may feel tempted to scrap the holiday season altogether, you can keep some traditions. For example, not buying a gift for your loved one is challenging. Consider still buying your deceased loved one a gift and donating it to a family/organization in need. Start a new tradition that honors your loved one such as having each family member light a candle in their honor and share a cherished story or memory.

Spend time with supportive loved ones Lean on those who will understand your sadness and listen to your feelings. Surround yourself with those that can help you honor your emotions and loved one.

Don’t be afraid to try something new Changing up your routine can be a welcoming thing during the realization of your loved one’s absence during the holiday. Creating new traditions or doing new activities during the holiday season doesn’t mean you are forgetting your loved one or less impacted by their loss; it means you are trying to create a life to live on.

Focus on health & seek professional support if needed Grieving is hard on the body and a source of stress, so try to eat well, get rest and find time to reflect, pray, or meditate. Consider attending a local grief support group or seek counseling services from a professional. Our local hospitals and hospice have wonderful grief support programs. For more information about grief support programs, go to the Mental Health America in Sheboygan County website, email, and/or call (920) 458-3951. Grief can make you feel like you are drowning. The waves feel big, are big, in the time after a loss, but eventually, they dissipate, and calming waters will find you.

For more information about this column contact Kate Baer by email and/or call her at 920-458-3951.

Kate Baer is executive director for Mental Health America in Sheboygan County and co-chair of the HSC 2020 Mental Health & Substance Abuse Committee.