Coping with grief and loss during the holidays

Anthony Komaroff, MD

Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Letter

Family and togetherness are key themes for the holidays. That can make the holidays awfully difficult for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.  My father passed away a month before the holidays.  We still shared presents, ate large meals, visited with friends, even sang carols—but it was all pretty subdued.

“If the grief is fresh, holiday cheer can seem like an affront. Celebrations may underscore how alone people feel,” notes my colleague Dr. Michael Miller former editor of Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Although grief is nearly universal, it expresses itself in many different ways, and sometimes resembles major depression. Frequent crying spells, depressed mood, sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite are common during the bereavement process.

Grief is not a tidy, orderly process, and there is no right way to grieve. Every person—and every family—does it differently. This can cause emotions to collide and overlap, especially during the holiday season when the emphasis is on rebirth and renewal.

Here are the strategies recommended in the Harvard Mental Health Letter that may help you or someone you know who is grieving cope with the holidays:

Start a new tradition. During a holiday dinner, place a lighted candle on the dinner table, leave an empty chair, or say a few words of remembrance.

Change the celebration. Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal at home. Or schedule a trip with friends.

Express your needs. People who are grieving may find it hard to participate in all the festivities or may need to let go of unsatisfying traditions. It’s all right to tell people you just aren’t up to it right now or to change plans at the last minute. I remember that my sister did not join in singing carols, the holidays after our father died.

Help someone else. It may also help to volunteer through a charitable or religious organization. Make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the person who died.  In retrospect, I wish I had done this during that sad holiday.

Give yourself time. The grieving process doesn’t neatly conclude at the six-month or one-year mark. Depending on the strength of the bond that was broken, grief can be life-long. Nevertheless, grief does usually soften and change over time. With time, the holidays will become easier to handle.


  1. ramanmaan

    The family and togetherness greatly reduce the grief and sorrow. It is due to there are lot others to care and show their love. But when they had left at that time the lack of loved one resembles. The family holidays are the one in which we forgot our pains due to togetherness and enjoyment.

  2. Autocad Kursu

    Thank you for useful information that you

  3. Ed Lange

    As a elderly pensioner you tend to try and prepare your children, to make it easier for them. I try to emphasise remembering more with fondness and less grief!

  4. Hoover Linx

    The death of a loved one is very rarely easy to accept or understand even if expected, this is particulary difficult to take at Christmas time. It certainly helps to have friends and relatives around to share the burden. Not everyone is so fortunate to have this luxury.

  5. namita

    social expression of loss” and, grief as the “internal experience of loss.” Grief may be experienced after many kinds of loss, such as death of loved one, relocation, serious illness, divorce, suicide, infertility. Some of the internal experiences of grief have been described as: anxiety, fear future loss, sadness, numbness, shock, loneliness, difficulty concentrating, anger, guilt, relief, insomnia, appetite loss, and fatigue. Each of these physical, emotional, and cognitive reactions is useful. They invite a person to adapt to the reality of their loss by slowing down. Yet, people typically try to avoid negative feelings by keeping busy and avoiding reminders of their loss.

  6. jessica

    Easier said than done!

  7. Tiffany C

    Good info

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