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Holiday Grief: The First Holiday Without Mom or Dad

Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy. And dealing with that grief can be twice as hard during the holidays. Whether it’s sudden or as a result of a long illness, the first holiday after the loss of a loved one changes the way a family celebrates a holiday. They may not even feel much like celebrating at all. While every person deals with death in their own way, the holidays are a time when family comes together — and that can be a tremendous comfort to the remaining members of the family to have other loved ones near.

Each member of your family may be experiencing loss in their own way and missing their spouse, mother, father, or grandparent for their own specific reasons. Here you’ll find tips for understanding the grief each member of your family may be experiencing and tips for finding the joy in the holiday and traditions you will all continue to share for many years to come.

Holidays After the Loss of a Spouse

For couples who have been together for decades, losing a spouse can be as heartbreaking as it is life-changing. They often lose their best friend and the person who they’ve made joint decisions with for a good portion of their lives.

The recent Netflix revival of The Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life addressed the shake-up that follows grief in the character of Emily Gilmore, a woman who lost her husband of 50 years just four months before the Christmas holiday. As the miniseries progressed, this side-plot followed the widowed Emily through arguments with her adult daughter, revising her husband’s headstone no less than four times, getting rid of half her belongings, battling depression, and ultimately, finding a new life after her husband’s death.

The portrayal is a poignant one, given that in the U.S. alone, there are 13.5 million widowed persons and 11 million of them are women. And while many widows lose a spouse, they also tend to lose 75% of their support system — including family and friends — often through self-isolation.

For widows who may have been grieving in solitude, the holidays can help them reconnect with their family and friends.

Tips for Widows and Widowers During the Holiday Season:

  • There is no absolute timeline for grief and moving on. Every person is different.
  • Embrace holiday traditions to remember your spouse. Or create brand new ones if it may be too painful to resume “normal” family activities.
  • Share stories about your spouse with family and friends. Yes, there is an empty place at the holiday table this year. But it was once occupied by a person who meant the world to you. The best way to honor his or her memory is to make sure younger generations of your family learn who they were. They may not be with you physically, but talking about them helps keep the memory of them alive.

Holidays After the Loss of a Parent

Whether you’re 18 or 48, the loss of a parent can make adult children feel lost and conflicted. You may be worried about your remaining parent and how he or she is coping with the loss of your spouse. You might throw yourself into projects to avoid facing your grief. And you may struggle with helping your own children deal with their feelings.

If it’s your first Christmas after losing a loved one, that holiday without Mom or Dad after their death may heighten your holiday grief. But there are ways to connect to your family during the holidays and find solace — and even new meaning — after the death of a parent.

Tips for Adult Children Coping with the Loss of a Parent During the Holidays:

  • If your parents used to host family dinners at their house, now may be the time to step up and host them at your place. If you have a grieving parent who isn’t coping well, starting a new tradition with your house as “home base” for family holidays may be helpful for everyone.
  • Enlist younger members of the family to help make the holiday dinner. This can bring multiple generations together in the kitchen and continue time-honored family traditions. It can also ease some of the burden on the adult child and their parent who may feel pressured to “put on a happy face” for the holidays and shoulder all of the responsibilities of holiday preparations.
  • You may find yourself frustrated with your remaining parent, or even feeling sad yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and look to your own significant other, friends, or family for support and good cheer. Don’t ever feel guilty about enjoying the holidays, even when you’ve been faced with loss.

Holidays After the Loss of a Grandparent

Depending how young the littlest members of your family may be, they may not fully grasp the concept of death. While helping them understand why Grandma and Grandpa aren’t around anymore is a sensitive topic, children will certainly understand that their family members may be sad — even though it’s the holidays.

Tips for Helping Children Deal with the Loss of a Grandparent During the Holidays:

  • Give children the chance to talk about their feelings and what they remember and loved most about their grandparent. Younger members of the family may have vivid recollections of their grandparents and want to express themselves.
  • The family may or may not want to go as a group to “visit” Grandma or Grandpa at the cemetery and pay their respects during the holidays. It’s really up to your discretion whether you feel it may be comforting or creepy for your child to come along with the rest of the family to the cemetery. You know your child or grandchild best and what he or she may take from the experience. They may actually be happy to be included with the rest of the family.
  • Remember: Kids are still kids and it is the holiday season. Amid the bright holiday lights, new toys, they might not be grieving — nor should they be. While there is a time to remember loved ones, there is also a time to enjoy time with members of the family who are still here and make happy memories to last throughout their own lifetime.

Coping with the loss of a loved one during the holidays can be difficult. However, the holidays bring family together and there can be a lot of comfort in that. Your family may have several wonderful traditions you may want to continue