Strategies for Handling the Holiday Season After Losing a Parent
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This is the time of year when millions of families usually gather to celebrate the holidays. But there is little that is “usual” about this year. Due to the pandemic, many holiday celebrations will be limited or even cancelled.

Plus, if you’ve lost an older family member this past year, the holiday table might have you staring at an empty chair.

This raises some hard questions. Can you still enjoy the holidays when you are grieving? Even more basic: Should you feel guilty if you find yourself laughing or smiling at the holiday table, knowing that your mom or dad isn’t there to share the fun? Put another way: How do you find a balance between pretending that everything is fine, and being overwhelmed with grief?

Let’s do our best to answer these challenging questions with some suggestions about respecting our feelings while honoring the memory of mom or dad. We will also outline some new traditions to consider.

First, honor your feelings.

Let’s get real. While the holidays are immortalized in song as “the most wonderful time of the year,” the truth is that they can also be the most stressful time of the year. This is true even when your family members are healthy and we’re not in the throes of a global health crisis.

This holiday season is just different. We live in anxious times. If you’ve also lost someone you love dearly, the emotional weight might seem like too much to bear.

Yet, bear it we must. It’s important to honor and trust our feelings, however intense we are feeling them. If you sense the urge to have a good cry in between bites of ham and sweet potatoes, there is no shame in doing so.

Acknowledge the 800-pound turkey in the room.

It might seem easier to tip-toe around the fact that your parent is gone.

After all, everyone knows they’ve passed away, so why bring up something that is so obviously painful? Suppressing your feelings is not healthy for you — nor does it honor your parent’s memory.

Or maybe you believe you should give yourself permission to overindulge in food or drink. After all, no one could blame you. Again, is this really what’s best for you? What would your mom or dad want for you?

The clearest advice: If you do choose to get the family together, make sure honesty and openness are on the menu.

What if I don’t feel like seeing family?

Nothing is more personal than grief. There is no right or wrong way to handle it. There is no timetable that reveals when you should be feeling better.

If you are grieving over a parent or loved one, you and only you can decide the best course of action. If that means this year you need to call a time-out, that’s fine. Just explain it to the family as early as you can, and suggest that they make alternate plans. At the same time, it’s not wise to completely isolate yourself. Take all the time you need, but keep the lines of communication open.

I would like to see family, but can we create some ground rules?

If you plan to have family over, or will be joining family in their home,

speak up and help set clear and reasonable expectations for what

the gathering will be like. If you’re worried about breaking down, say so.

You will probably find your family is ready to step in, comfort you, and pick up the slack. If you’re a perfectionist, this would be an excellent time to lower your standards. The point of getting together is to share the love and warmth, and to mourn together. Save the perfect table setting or exquisite cuisine for some other time. Don’t add any extra burdens to an already heavy load.

Sharing happy memories.

Everyone knows this year is different. Someone very important is missing out on the festivities. This makes it an ideal time to think about how much your mom or dad meant to everyone.

You might plan a special time during the holiday dinner for everyone to say something about your parent. Some families light a candle and pass it around the table as each family member says a few words or shares a fond, happy, or funny memory.

Crafty, thoughtful ways to show your love.

Here are several fun and memorable ways to make this painful time more meaningful.

  • Create a special area, like a space on the fireplace mantle or on a holiday tree, to have everyone leave a special message honoring the loved one who’s passed.
  • Supply some markers and notecards and have everyone jot down a special memory, something they are grateful for, or words of support for the people in your family who are impacted most.
  • Put out an extra place setting with your loved one’s name to honor their memory.
  • Pause for a moment of silent prayer or meditation.
  • Make your parent’s favorite holiday dessert and serve it after the meal.
  • Visit one of your loved one’s most-loved places, or dine at their favorite restaurant.

A final thought for the widowed spouse.

The only person more affected than the child of a loved one who has passed, is the surviving spouse. As they go through the process of coping from the loss of a spouse, it should go without saying that the family does everything possible to treat them with extra kindness and consideration. Even independent seniors might use a little extra help here and there. This can be in the form of emotional or physical support which may also reduce feelings of loneliness.

If your loved one lives far away, the family might want to help arrange caring, professional home care. Additionally, widowed spouses and adult children of those who’ve passed might wish to seek out the help of a support group.

Remember, this too shall pass.

During this challenging season, the most important thing to be, is yourself. Feel your feelings, take some alone time if needed, and remember: Everything in life changes, including feelings of grief. Just because you’re not “feeling it” this holiday season, doesn’t mean you won’t in the future.


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16 ideas for creating new holiday tradition after a death

Holidays after the death of a loved one

About the Author(s)

With over 20 years of experience writing for leading healthcare providers, Rob is passionate about bringing awareness to the issues surrounding our aging society. As a former caretaker for his parents and his aunt, Rob understands first-hand the experiences and challenges of caring for an aging loved. Long an advocate for caregiver self-care, his favorite activities include walking on the beach, hiking in the coastal hills of Southern California and listening to music.

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