There are fewer things more challenging than experiencing the death of a loved one.  At times, there may seem like there is no easing the pain of grief.  What can feel even more devastating, is the inability to feel ‘ok’ during times that should have been- and would have been- joyful.  If you are struggling to find peace, you might benefit from support and resources dedicated to helping you cope with grief during the holidays. 


The holidays are a time associated with family, tradition, memories, love, and peace.  If you have lost someone you love, you might notice that everywhere you look there are reminders that the holidays will never be the same again for you. These reminders can trigger extreme emotional reactions and could send you into a dark place. Where there were once feelings of excitement around decorations, holiday traditions, gifts, and spending time with friends and family; there may be feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and despair.

Getting through the holidays can seem like an impossible and unbearable task.  Remembering to be compassionate with yourself during this time and finding some practical measures can help you cope with the complicated thoughts and feelings you might experience as you attempt to navigate the holidays without your cherished loved one.

#1)  Expect it to be hard and manage your expectations of yourself.

You have been changed at your core – without asking to be.  Your body, mind, and spirit are trying to process the devastating information around your loss.  Understandably, there is also a part of you that does not want to believe and accept that your life will never be the same.  There are so many complicated and conflicting thoughts and feelings that need to be integrated after we lose someone.

While you might want to be a part of celebrations for the sake of your loved ones, expecting yourself to feel up to celebrating the way you once did is simply not fair to you.

Instead of feeling guilty for not being joyful or energetic, try reminding yourself that you are having a hard time – the way you would do for a friend.  If you notice you are dreading that holiday dinner or work party, remember that you are not a bad parent, friend, or colleague – you are simply grieving.

When we manage our expectations of ourselves with compassion for what we are going through, we will be able to communicate our needs more effectively for those around us; and, make choices around how we decide to handle this season in a way that can support us rather than bring us further down.

2) There will be highs and lows.  Anticipate the range of feelings and plan accordingly.

There will be days you might welcome the company of family or friends, and even feel up to having a laugh or two.  There will be other days still, that the mere thought of leaving your bed causes feelings of panic and dread.

Depending where you are in your grieving, you may even notice that you experience the extremes of that cycle within minutes or hours, versus days or weeks.

Grief is a difficult process and each individual will cope with loss in their own unique way.  The emotional ups and downs are part of healing through loss, and these changes can be extreme and difficult to manage.  Often times grief can show up in waves, and if not prepared – you might feel like you are drowning in the intensity with no way out.

Feeling out of control of your emotions can cause anxiety and have you to wanting to isolate yourself in case you have an ‘outburst’.  Accept that you might go from smiling to crying in minutes; and, have a plan in place to help yourself feel more secure.

For example, If you choose to go shopping for gifts or attend a family function, give yourself an out in case you need it.  Plan to stay for a short period, and if you are feeling up to extending an outing or visit you can always do so.  Feeling like you are ‘stuck’ can add to anxiety and overwhelm.

3) Decide in advance what you are able to handle, and communicate your needs.

Holidays can bring a lot of feelings to the surface.  Feelings of obligation and not wanting to disappoint others can motivate us to push ourselves to do things we may not have the energy for.

You know yourself and what you are able to handle.

When thinking about the different social and family events, notice how your body is feeling when you picture yourself being there.  Try to get a sense of whether or not your body feels that it is something you can handle.  If so, what are the circumstances that will allow you to feel the safest and most comfortable. For example, how long can you stay, and who might you want to have with you for support.

Once you have listened to your body in this way, communicate your plans to the people involved so that they can manage their own expectations around the event or celebration.

4) Try something new this year.

One of the hardest parts of grief during the holidays is experiencing established traditions without your loved one; it may even feel as though you are being disloyal to the person who is not able to share in these traditions with you by carrying on without them.

The absence of your loved one undoubtedly leaves a painful void; this void is even more noticeable when we are reminded how much our lives have changed.

If you are feeling as though you would like to put a special tradition on hold this year, remember that you have every right to do so.  You, and your life, have changed significantly and honouring that truth can be very healing.

If you feel up to it, you might try replacing an old tradition that would have been shared with your loved one with a new simple action as a way of honouring this transition.

If, for example, you and your loved one would go to buy a tree together, try planting a small tree or plant in or around your home to honour your loved one as well as how things have changed.

Try Including someone you trust capable of understanding what you are going through and supporting you in a way that makes you feel heard and validated.

If spending the holidays doing exactly what you would have done in the past brings you comfort – go ahead and do just that!

Remember to listen to yourself and honour what it is that you need.

5) Allow yourself to feel.

This point will likely be the most difficult.  The physical and emotional pain that can accompany grieving someone you held so dear to you will likely feel unbearable, and you may be tempted to distract yourself from that pain in any way you can in order to avoid the discomfort.

While avoiding or numbing the feelings is completely understandable – and at times necessary – allowing yourself to feel all of the challenging feelings is crucial to healing through grief.

The holidays tend to magnify all emotions, the positive and the painful.  It is likely that the memory of your lost loved one will seem stronger than ever; and, the feelings of love as well as loss will be heightened.

If possible, allow yourself space and time to experience the range of emotions that will be brought to the surface.  If you are someone who prefers to grieve alone, give yourself that time to do so.  If you feel that being supported by friends, family, a therapist or a support group – gift yourself with the opportunity to process through your loss and begin your journey towards healing.


However you choose to navigate these holidays – remember to treat yourself with as much compassion as you can muster.

You most certainly deserve it.

Wishing you all as much peace in your hearts as possible,

Andrea Fiorini

North York Counselling Services  



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What is Psychotherapy? How can it help me?

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