How to Deal with the Holidays After Losing a Parent

First Holiday Without Mom or Dad

Losing a parent is never easy, but the first Christmas after the death of someone you love is a special kind of difficult. During a time when jingling bells and twinkling lights are supposed to make you smile, you can’t help but be constantly reminded of who’s missing and the pain of that loss. Gift giving, carol singing, cookie baking… every tradition feels tainted by this tragedy, seemingly forever. Will you ever be able to enjoy the holidays again? Maybe you feel guilty for even wanting to feel that joy.

While there’s no rulebook when it comes to processing grief during the holidays, we do have some recommendations on how to survive this season. 

Acknowledge the Loss

First and foremost, it’s okay that you’re struggling. We’re often tempted to dismiss or suppress negative emotions during this time because of the expectations that this is a happy time, especially if you’re trying to be “strong” for other grieving family members. Let that pressure go! Don’t ignore your grief. Feel all your feelings, whatever they might be. You’re allowed to be sad, angry, anxious, annoyed… all at once! You never have to pretend otherwise. You’ve been through something tragic, and disregarding that is not fair to you. Whenever you need to acknowledge that your parent is gone. Say it out loud. You won’t ruin Christmas by doing so. It’s the truth, and it’s also the truth that the holidays are happening with or without the people who’ve passed away. Only by accepting the situation, not by denying or avoiding it, can you process and heal.

Listen to our live call with Jamie who is depressed and grieving her mom and grandma who have passed away. Her grief weighs heavily on her during the holidays.

Take It Easy

Don’t overdo it this year. It’s okay not to go to every party or to leave early from the ones you do attend. It’s okay to tell friends and family you’re not able to do certain traditions, trips, or activities. Grief takes a toll on our minds and bodies, so you might feel extra tired, irritable, weepy, etc. You don’t have to make a million cookies. You don’t have to get a picture with Santa. You don’t have to watch every Christmas movie. Instead of a massive group outing to the drive-through light festival, perhaps this year you can just go on a walk with your dog to check out your neighborhood’s decorations. Instead of laboring away on individualized DIY gifts for everyone, maybe this is the year it’s okay to just give folks Starbucks gift cards. Make things easier for yourself so that you have the time and space to rest, recover, and reflect on what you’ve lost and what the holidays look like without your parent.

Surround Yourself With Support

This is the time to cling to your community. Spend as much time as you can with family and friends who are also feeling the loss of your parent, so that they will understand when you need to express your grief. Your siblings, your parent’s spouse, your extended family, and your closest friends should all comprehend that this holiday is a difficult one, and together you can hold space for one another’s feelings without judgment. You’ll have shoulders to cry on when you need one, but don’t be afraid to enjoy each other’s company too. There’s plenty of room in the human heart for both grief and joy, so if surrounding yourself with loved ones happens to bring a smile to your face, let it happen. You’re not betraying the pain you’re in by having a moment of happiness too.

If you aren’t getting the support you need from the people in your life, or if the death of your parent left you alone for the holidays, reach out to a support group or church in your neighborhood. You don’t have to experience this difficult time all by yourself! There are always kind people nearby who are willing to give of their time and other resources for those who are in pain. If you aren’t ready to venture out into your community, or if you aren’t sure where to start, check out TheHopeLine, where you can always chat with someone who’ll treat you with compassion and respect.

Make the Holiday Your Own

It’s tough to know how to cope with Christmas after a death… it’s a holiday filled with traditions, but how can we be expected to participate or enjoy those traditions without someone who helped create them? Losing a parent can make every Christmas ritual we love feel ruined. So what if you tried changing things up, making new traditions, or tweaking the ones you already have in order to acknowledge what’s different this year? Check out these ways to honor your parent’s absence and make festivities your own:

  • Include your parent in the important events. If it feels strange to decorate the house without them, choose a new decoration that represents them. It could be an ornament with their photo on it, or it could be a candle on the mantle. Whatever it is, let it be a reminder of their presence in your heart so that you know you’re free to celebrate the season having honored them.
  • Take a moment at a family gathering to acknowledge your loss. Propose a toast, say a prayer, or tell a story about your parent. Dedicating a few minutes to talking about what’s different this Christmas can give everyone the opportunity to feel their grief before diving into the festivities, and it may help you feel better about enjoying yourself too.
  • Acknowledge their favorite tradition. Whether your parent had a favorite Christmas cookie cutter or always made a big deal about going to a certain restaurant every year, pick something that used to be traditional and reminds you of them. Now, to acknowledge this tradition, you can either retire it, like they do with famous jersey numbers in some sports, or you can nominate someone to carry on the legacy of it. This might look like displaying their favorite holiday mug as a decoration, rather than letting folks drink out of it anymore. Or it could look like nominating your little brother to be in charge of organizing your dad’s favorite gift exchange party in future years. The point is to take something that reminds you of your parent and change the way it’s done, making it new or immortalizing it for the family.
  • Give back to the community in some way. Does your family have a charitable cause that’s close to your hearts? Or did the parent you lost feel strongly about any organizations? You and your family could start a new tradition of volunteering at a local shelter each year in honor of your lost loved one, or you could agree to donate the funds you would have spent on gifts for your parent. This creates a new tradition and establishes a legacy of kindness and giving in their honor.
  • Do something completely out of the ordinary. While honoring the person you’ve lost is all well and good, sometimes the pain of a loss is too great or too recent to imagine doing anything remotely Christmas-y. If you’re in that headspace, it’s time to think outside of the box. Go on a trip! Have a marathon of your favorite movies! Head to an amusement park and ride roller coasters! Pick something that you’d never imagined doing on Christmas Day and do that instead of the traditional activities. Maybe next year you’ll be able to fathom returning to some of your holiday favorites, but if you need a year off to process your grief, that’s okay too.

Love, Joy, Peace

You’ve lost someone important to you, and we could not be more sorry for the pain that you’re going through. We listen to people process difficult feelings every day of the year, but we know that the holidays make it even more difficult. In this dark time, it’s important for us to remember why we celebrate Christmas in the first place, and no, it’s not to rub your pain in your face at this vulnerable time. As hard as it may be to see it right now, this time of year is about hope and celebrating the promise of joy and peace that Christ’s birth represents for mankind. If hope is the last thing on your mind right now, we get it, and we don’t think you should have to feel that way alone. Reach out to TheHopeLine today, and we’ll sit with you in your grief this Christmas season.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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