Grief and the Holidays

by Susan Gembarowski MA, LPC, NCC 

The ancient playwright Aeschylus said, "There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief."  During the holidays, many will experience an altered version of this:  "There is no pain so great as grief for one who is in the presence of joy."  Most of us associate holidays with joyful gatherings of loved ones—with love and laughter, festivals and feasts, warmth and wonder.  If we have ever enjoyed such times, we cannot help but recall those holidays and long for them again.  What adult has not felt the occasional pang of disappointment—we might even say “grief”--when the magical nature of childhood holidays cannot be recaptured?

And yet how much greater the heartache when the dear person one shared those holidays with is no longer present. This pain can feel unbearable.  If you are facing the holidays as one who is grieving, the following thoughts may help you cope when celebration is taking place all around you.

1.   Listen to your heart.  Well-meaning people may think they know what you need, but they are not in your skin.  Do you need less time in large gatherings of merry-making? Do you need to scale back your routines to fit with limited emotional and physical energy? Do holiday movies or music feel like “too much” to handle? Do what is good for you. Your healing heart cannot be rushed.

2.   Make plans.  Consider in advance what will feel comfortable before entering into the holidays, doing what you can to eliminate stress. Does the idea of hosting guests bring anxiety? If you usually have traveled during the holidays, does staying home sound more appealing?  Plan to do it differently this year. In addition, have a contingency plan ready to put into place and give yourself permission to use it if Plan A ends up feeling too overwhelming.

3.   Mix it up.  Holidays include traditions.  This year, ponder the possibility of beginning a new tradition, or letting go of an old one.  These can be minor (add a new recipe to the holiday feast, for example) or major (no feast at all, and serving at a homeless shelter instead).  You can always change it up again next year.

4.   Remember.  The person you loved is gone, not forgotten.  Share your memories with others, and invite them to do the same.  Some have found it helpful to set a place at the table in memory of their beloved. Others have found comfort in making a toast.  You might try lighting a memorial candle at your gathering, making ornaments using your loved one's photo, or creating a list together of ways your lives were touched by the one who is gone.

5.   Talk about your loss. Some people mistakenly think that distracting ourselves from feeling heartache is the better way to go, as if the painful feelings will disappear by being denied. But that is a little like trying to hold a beach ball under water! Moving through grief is best done when we are fully present to the mixture of emotions that come up. If you have people in your life who will not judge or instruct you when you express your grief, talk to them.  Enlist a counselor's help if you do not have good listeners in your circle. 

6.   Open the door to happier emotions if they come knocking. Sometimes a grieving person feels “guilty” for smiling, laughing, or not thinking about the loss 24/7. We do our loved ones no dishonor by allowing our broken hearts to heal.

The holidays have a way of coming around whether we are ready for them or not.  If you are grieving, “getting ready” this year means being kind to yourself.  It means being precisely where you are on this unwelcome journey of grief—a journey that originated in the glorious experience of having loved.  May this holiday season surprise you with unexpected healing moments along the way.


Susan Gembarowski is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Denver.  She is Co-Director of Counseling at Joy House, a faith-based residential program for women and children coming out of domestic violence.  She also maintains a private practice where she sees adult clients.