Holiday ornament beside Douglas Fir Christmas tree clippings

Coping with Grief and Traditions During The Holidays

Matt Black Photo Atticus Contributor
Matt Black

Holiday guide to grief and loss


The holidays are upon us, and while that means family, giving, food and laughs, for many people who’ve lost someone special this year, the holidays are also a constant reminder of their absence. For some families, this will mean shedding tradition altogether, and for others, it will mean making new ones. This is especially true in 2020, as the year of disruptions continues to challenge us to get creative around spending time together, while apart.

For these reasons, Atticus has compiled this guide to help you cope with grief while celebrating (or just enduring) the holidays. Grieving adults, spouses, children and those who have unexpectedly lost a loved one to Covid-19, will find helpful tips on keeping verus skipping holiday traditions, inspiration for modifying or creating new traditions, tips for the best books and movies for grieving and some additional resources to lean on if you need help.

Holiday guide for grieving adults

Three Christmas trees in snow during the holidays.

For adults grieving the loss of a friend, loved one or a child, the holidays can be particularly challenging. You’ve spent a lifetime creating traditions with your lost loved one, and now these traditions bring back a flood of emotions. Keeping these holiday traditions going largely falls upon adults, and given your grief, there’s a few things to consider if you’re going to keep, modify or do away with certain holiday traditions this year.

Every person is different about how they handle grief, thus, each person will have to find what works for them. Just about every grief counselor and psychologist agrees that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with grief, but Litsa Williams, who’s a Licensed Social Worker and co-founder of the website, What’s Your Grief, says that for the holidays, it’s important to take the time to formulate a plan. She says,

“Acknowledge that things are going to have to change, and that some things are going to continue. Do that for yourself, and then connect with family about your decisions.”

Atticus Tip - For help formulating a plan for the holidays, see “A Practical Plan for Dealing with Grief During the Holidays” in our “Resources for grieving adults to lean on” section below.

Should grieving adults keep holiday traditions, or not?

This is a tough question for a lot of people, and the bereaved should know this is a perfectly normal, and almost essential question to ask yourself. Many families love their traditions, especially around the holidays, but unfortunately, those traditions can bring a lot of memories that could cause a lot of grief. 

Since coming together as a family is a typical holiday tradition, it’s important to think about and communicate with your family during this time. While Williams acknowledges that it’s often great to lean on family if that’s an option, she also recommends communicating that maybe you just don’t want to celebrate the holidays this year. After all, for many, celebrating just feels wrong, while for others, honoring traditions and celebrating lost loved ones will be the best way to enjoy the holidays.

What’s something else grieving adults can do instead of normal traditions?

Grief needs to be addressed at some point, but cut yourself some slack, and realize that the holidays might not be the time to force it. Unpacking ornament boxes or bringing out old holiday photos could be too much for a lot of people. But research suggests that people are better off if they do something. Here’s a few examples that helped some folks in the past.

  • Take over a tradition - Was mom the one who always made sure everyone got their “thank you” cards? Williams suggests thinking about what void is left by your lost loved one. Taking over that task can be a great way to honor that person, and continue their legacy.
  • Cook their favorite meal - A tradition you can take over and continue is preparing the favorite dish of a lost loved one, or perhaps preparing the dish they were normally responsible for. And don’t judge yourself if it’s not as good, as that’s not the point.
  • Write memories on the back of photographs - This one comes from Eleanor Haley, co-founder of What’s Your Grief. Before Christmas the message went out that when they gathered, they were to bring printed photos of their lost family member. At Christmas dinner, they handed everyone a pen, and each person took a turn writing down a memory about that specific photo. When it was done, they had a brand new picture album full of memories.
  • Light a candle - This is a simple, yet powerful timeless reminder of a lost loved one. You can also build a ritual around candle lighting with family. “There are some who bring a light so great to the world that even after they have gone the light remains.” — Unknown

Just remember, taking a year off from a tradition doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. The literal definition of “tradition” is, “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation,” and it says nothing about tradition being on an annual basis.

Resources for grieving adults to lean on:

If you’re not the therapy type, but feel like you need some information on what you’re going through, or perhaps to learn about what others might be going through, we recommend the following online resources:

Best books and movies for grieving adults

Let’s face it, all of us will probably be spending more time at home this year. The following are some books and movies that can be a great help to sort out what you’re feeling. Or maybe, you just need a good laugh.

These are the best books for grieving adults:

  • “Four Funerals and a wedding: Resilience in Time of Grief” by Jill Smolowe - This book is about the author bucked the norms of grief after losing her husband, sister, mother and mother-in-law within a space of a year-and-a-half.
  • “The Other Side of Sadness” by George Bonano - This is another book about bucking norms while confronting grief. This classic was recently updated, and includes joy and relief as methods of coping, versus pure sadness.

These are the best holiday movies for grieving adults:

  • “Elf” - Comedy starring Will Ferrell, and good for grieving adults because a lot of it is about adults being more like children.
  • “Miracle on 34th Street” - This timeless drama is good for grieving adults because it’s a reminder that miracles do happen.
  • “It’s a Wonderful Life” - This holiday classic starring Jimmy Stewert puts the main character through the ringer before he realizes how good he has it.

Holiday guide for families grieving due to Covid-19

Young woman video chats loved ones wearing covid mask during holidays

If you’re one of hundreds of thousands of families that lost a loved one due to Covid-19 this year, then disruptions brought by 2020 have probably hit extra hard. Because of rising cases, 68% of families will either change their holiday plans, or opt to stay home for this year instead of braving their busy traveling norms.

Carrying on traditions will be tough this year for every family, as more than any year in recent memory, families will opt to stay home. For some people who are experiencing social anxiety, this could actually be welcome relief. Author Maryanne Pope, who wrote A Widow's Awakening after losing her husband two months before Christmas, says,

"Interestingly, this holiday season – Dec 2020 – might actually be a bit of a blessing for some people ... Because of the pandemic restrictions, we are not supposed to be in large gatherings ... Although these restrictions may lead to increased isolation for some people, at least the situations that can lead to social anxiety will be somewhat lessened."

Should people grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19 keep holiday traditions, or attempt to make new ones?

Just like all instances with grief, there is no right answer to this question, however, Pope believes there is an important thing you should consider — how much joy do you get from these traditions and gatherings? Pope recommends that you take the time to think about it, and if you believe you will gain some joy by participating in family events then that’s probably an effort you should make. But she also says to not be afraid to use the world, "no." "The more you use it, the easier it gets to use," she says.

Atticus Tip - For help with remote ways to connect during the holidays, see Connecting with Family While Social Distancing” in our “Resources for people grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19 to lean on” section below.

There will be those who might actually feel relief that there’s an excuse for not traveling this year, and then there’s people who really want to carry on traditions, but will be held back due to travel restrictions. Small group gatherings are typically better for grieving, and this year, government and health organizations are suggesting that you only gather with five or so family members, and asking that you don’t participate in gatherings which involve more than three households of people. So whether you’re braving the holidays with family, or celebrating alone, here’s some tips on festivities you can adopt instead of your normal traditions.

What’s something people grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19 can do instead of normal traditions?

Since time spent alone and apart from friends and family is a stronger possibility this year than most, this is also a good time to remind ourselves of the benefits of personal rituals. In a 2013 study released in the Journal of Experimental Psychology called “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries,” researchers found that folks who engage in personal rituals generally spend less time in a grieving state.

The study found that an extreme majority of their participants performed private rituals, outside of religious or social settings, to help them grieve their loss. A follow up study found that people who confronted grief by performing a private ritual were generally happier. Just be mindful of the fact that these rituals are meant to evoke emotion, so if you’re not there yet that’s perfectly okay. Again, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but the following rituals have helped others in the past. 

  • Play a song that makes you think of your lost loved one - This one almost promises to be a tear-jerker, so proceed with caution. Music is the most magical and universal of mediums, and our connection to it is so powerful you can expect at least some emotion from this process. Extra points if you have a record player... there's something warm, fuzzy and familiar about the grainy feedback of a vinyl album– particularly a nostalgic one during the holidays.
  • Carry a remembrance item - If you do decide to join in holiday festivities, carry a remembrance item that will remind you of your lost loved one every time you touch it or see it. Of course, that can be a lot for some individuals, and for others, it will make them feel like they’re still there. This could be a tiny keepsake you keep in your pockets, or even a special piece of jewelry for all to see and comment.
  • Create or buy an honorary ornament - Many grieving families might opt to not get a Christmas tree altogether, but for those who do, creating or buying a special ornament dedicated to your lost loved one can make for a great private ritual. This is great for families to participate in too.
  • Stay home and cozy up - Pope says, "I love having lit candles and a fire going. This may sound strange, but I prefer lighting that is conducive to the soul … soft lights, candles, fire ... Cozy surroundings can go a long way to help bring lightness to our heavy hearts."

Just remember, the point of these rituals is do something that’s personally meaningful for you, so if you’re going to engage in this process, keep the practice centered around what’s supportive to your feelings, particularly if you're the family saint who always prioritizes everyone else's feelings first.

Resources for people grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19 to lean on:

If you have a loved one in the ICU during the holidays, check out this online resource by the American Psychological Association

Best books and movies for those grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19

This section has been all about confronting your loss, and you’ll find that in the “books” section. But we must acknowledge that we all could use a good laugh from time to time, so in that vein, we included some bittersweet Christmas movies.

These are the best books for people grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19:

  • “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion - This heartbreaking, yet uplifting book follows the author’s evolution through grief after her daughter goes into a coma from septic shock, which caused her husband to have a fatal heart attack.

These are the best holiday movies for people grieving the loss of someone to Covid-19: 

  • “Scrooged” - Comedy starring Bill Murray, who in an ode to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
  • “Fred Claus” - Comedy starring Vince Vaughn, who plays the brother of Santa Claus. While both brothers are struggling, each finds a way to save the other. 
  • “Bad Santa” - Comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton, and is about the most vulgar movie you’ll find about the holidays. With a lot of drinking, smoking and cursing, maybe the perversions in this movie are exactly the kind of laugh you need.

Holiday guide for grieving spouses & widowed

Widowed spouse reads book on phone during holidays

The void, and often the trauma of losing a spouse is not something that’s easily overcome. Many widows who have experienced this loss speak about a lack of ability to concentrate or perform normal work and life functions. When this state-of-mind is coupled with the stresses of the holidays, feelings of being overwhelmed are common. There’s a lot to overcome, as traditions create constant reminders of your lost spouse, and the holidays are full of tradition.

Should grieving spouses keep holiday traditions, or not?

If this is your first holiday without your loved one, then consider seriously dialing back your holiday activities. Maryanne Pope says,

"For that first wretched Christmas after my husband’s death I couldn’t bear to put up a tree — and see all our familiar ornaments (landmines wrapped in tissue paper) but not have him to share the experience with."

The holidays in 2020 are already a season of stress, and if you’re a person who has a lot of holiday responsibilities, then do your best to delegate them to friends or other family members. Hopefully, there’s been a few who’ve asked how they can help.

Social anxiety is also a common feeling among people who lost a spouse, and it’s important to go into social events with a plan. We already discussed some of the things you should think about, but one thing to add to your plan is to have an exit strategy. If you’re on the fence, and you decide to attend, maybe have a backup plan in case you need to make a quick exit.

What’s something grieving spouses can do instead of normal traditions?

When it comes to grieving a spouse, it’s even more important to emphasize that everyone is different. For some, personal rituals are important, and for others, the holidays are so emotional that doing nothing at all might be appropriate. Here’s a few examples that helped some folks in the past.

  • Don’t decorate, or dial it down - As Pope couldn't decorate in her normal fashion, "I came up with Plan B, and instead looped pretty little white lights around some photos of him that were on the fireplace hearth. He was a police officer who died in the line of duty, so the police service had given me several beautiful plaques. The overall effect was a little shrine-like … but it did the trick to get me through the worst Christmas of my life.
  • Keep a tradition - A man and his wife got their haircut every first Saturday of the month for 15 years, and he kept the tradition alive when his wife passed. Consider keeping a holiday tradition alive that you shared with your spouse, or include a close friend or family members.
  • Take over a tradition - A woman whose husband died continued washing his car every week, just as he did when he was alive. Was your spouse responsible for something specific during the holidays? Consider keeping that tradition alive by taking it over.
  • Start a new tradition - This one comes from Richard Beebe in Connecticut, who lost his wife in 2007, and daughter in 2013. "On Christmas Eve, after Mass and dinner with friends, I go to the cemetery, place two lighted lanterns on their graves and spend a few quiet minutes in the presence of their memories."

Resources for grieving spouses and those recently widowed to lean on:

Best books and movies for grieving spouses

Having a good laugh during the holidays is always therapeutic, but if you want books and movies that deal with the subject of a lost spouse, there’s a few options for you.

These are the best books for grieving spouses:

  • “A Widow’s Awakening” by Maryanne Pope - Fictional story about Pope’s personal experiences and revelations during her first year as a widow.
  • “Healing a Spouse's Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Husband Or Wife Dies” by Alan Wolfelt - This collection of 100 ideas from people who’ve mourned tackles tough questions, such as when it’s appropriate to pack up your spouse’s belongings.

These are the best holiday movies for grieving spouses:

  • “Prancer” - Drama starring Sam Elliott, who plays a widower raising a daughter who discovers that a hurt reindeer may actually be one of Santa’s magical eight.
  • “Jack Frost” - Comedy starring Michael Keaton, who plays a dad that comes back to his family as a snowman named Jack Frost after he passes unexpectedly.

Holiday guide for grieving children and teens

young family decorates christmas tree together

Children especially struggle with the emotions that come along with grief, and parents struggle even more trying to understand their children’ reactions. As with everyone else, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when helping grieving children, but there are a couple constants that parents and adults should keep in mind.

The holidays can be especially confusing for parents and adults when helping grieving children, as the excitement of gift giving can still be a wonderful moment for children. But Williams reminds us that that’s how children are, “Remember that natural grief is oscillating,” she says. “Between one minute being completely consumed, and the next being excited about whatever — like a gift, video game or soccer practice — and that can be difficult for adults to understand.”

Should grieving children keep holiday traditions, or not?

The best way to combat this “oscillation,” is to embrace it, and communicate to the grieving child that it’s okay to feel all kinds of emotions. Likewise for the people around them, as kiddos should be set up for the fact that some moments will be happy, and others very sad. But whenever the grieving child is having one of their own happy moments, try not to judge them for not being sad. 

Adults who are grieving may have a tougher time around the holidays with their children, as the option to forego traditions is a little less feasible. Keeping up traditions, or tweaking them, is a fantastic way to show a child that life goes on, and normalcy will return. Just don’t sweat it, and don’t be surprised when a tradition held without your lost loved one doesn’t go the way it always used to.

What’s something grieving children can do instead of normal traditions?

Arts and crafts are a big one when it comes to ways that grieving children can honor, or remember a lost loved one. This can come in the form of ornaments or cookies, or whatever you like. Other than that, here are some other tips to help a grieving child during the holidays.

  • Create a memory box or stocking - One of the biggest fears people have when losing someone close is the thought that eventually they’ll forget about that person. This can be doubly true for children, so having a place where you can collect memories, and perhaps read them aloud together, is a great way to remember your lost loved one.
  • Make a donation to charity - Tell your child that instead of buying your lost loved one a gift this year, you’re going to buy a gift in their honor to donate to someone in need. This will make a child feel good, and like they’re doing something about the situation. Not to mention another child will likely have a smile put on their face when they receive the gift.

Resources for adults helping grieving children
Best books and movies to help grieving children

Laughter is the best medicine, and when it comes to children that medicine is even more powerful. 

These are the best holiday books for grieving children:

  • “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg - This Christmas classic is a visual feast, as the book follows the magical journey of a young boy who rides a train to the North Pole.
  • “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss - This Christmas classic shows that the real meaning of Christmas has little to do with gifts, and more to do with spending time with those you love.

These are the best holiday movies for grieving children:

  • “Jack Frost” - Comedy starring Michael Keaton, who plays a dad that comes back to his family as a snowman named Jack Frost after he perishes. 
  • “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” - Comedy starring Jim Carrey, who plays Dr. Suess’ classic character Grinch, who tries to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville. And for the younger children, try the original 1966 version titled "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!", or the modern computer-animated 2018 version titled "Dr. Seuss' the Grinch."

Atticus hopes that this guide will help people through the most difficult holiday season of our lives. May your spirits be lifted, and a little more bright, in the knowledge that you’re not alone, you can do this and grieving will get easier.

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