I was on the phone with my mom this past week. We were discussing holiday plans when she vulnerably told me something I’ve never heard from her before.
“Christmas has always been harder for me,” she said. She was referencing the loss of her father—my grandpa—who passed away on Christmas.
I was four and we were living in the mountains of Northern California. A thin blanket of snow had covered our sleepy lake town. While my paternal grandparents rocked my infant sister by the tree, I stood in the wooden door frame of my parents’ bedroom. My flannel night gown, holiday-themed with white ribbon cuffs, brushed my legs as I walked up to my parents. My mother wept as my dad held her. Taking my tiny hands in theirs, they explained to me that Grandpa was no longer with us.
Despite having been so young when my grandfather passed, his loss did not go unnoticed. I imagine all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, unwrapping presents with my three siblings to the tune of holiday CDs, my parents nursing their warm mugs of coffee. I remember spending the afternoon in the kitchen as my mother prepared the roast and pie. While I was too young then, I see now the conflicting emotions she was experiencing. Joy found in the quiet Christmas morning spent with her husband and four children; sorrow because her father was not there with us.
No matter the time of year, losing friends and family is devastating, and it can be especially heartbreaking during the holidays. Even as time passes and the initial shock and pain lessens, the void remains. The holidays seem to emphasize the loss.
Death is not the only way we lose people, either. Sometimes we lose the ones we love to mental health illnesses or addictions. Sometimes we’ve had to sever ties with a loved one because the relationship became unsafe or toxic to our wellbeing. Grieving for these relationships is equally painful.
Whether this is your first year celebrating without a loved one or you are grieving a loss from many years ago, here are a few gentle reminders for handling grief over the holidays.
Be Honest About Your Feelings & Allow Yourself to Grieve
Begin by being honest with yourself. This is especially important if the loss is recent and it is your first holiday season without your loved one. Take due diligence with self-care and be kind to your body and spirit, allowing yourself to feel everything you need to feel. Grieving makes us human. It means we loved deeply and cared for another. In mourning our loss, even many years later, we are acknowledging the impact this person had on us.
Allow yourself to grieve and don’t put parameters around your emotions. As the brilliant Brené Brown says, stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself. Forget unrealistic expectations. Practice saying no. Don’t feel obligated to host or go to the holiday parties or to participate in the activities and traditions. Be vulnerable and honest about where you’re at—both with your close community and with yourself.
While the postcards and commercials and holiday films are nice, they are not accurate, all-encompassing depictions. It may be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ at one moment, but the joy can quickly shift to pain without warning. Allow yourself to grieve. Grant yourself permission to feel the full range of emotions common to loss.
Celebrate Your Loved One in Community
Because I was young when my grandfather passed (some of my siblings weren’t yet alive), it’s important for us to hear stories about his life and give space for my mother to share his legacy. Likewise, my partner and I have continued to lose relatives and friends throughout the years. To commemorate, we are beginning a new tradition this year. On Christmas day, we will celebrate those who are no longer with us by sharing memories and looking through photos. This is a meaningful way for us to grieve, remember, and honor the people who’ve impacted us. It is also allows us to connect with our close community and share the legacy of those who are no longer with us.
For some of you, honoring your loved ones in the company of others will be too painful. You may feel more comfortable and safe by taking a few moments to celebrate your loved one in private. This is an equally meaningful and beautiful act. Do not feel pressured to be with others if you need time to yourself.
Remember that every person is unique in how they grieve. Be kind to yourself as you navigate this path.
Give Back in Your Loved One’s Honor
Another meaningful way to honor your loved one’s life during the holidays is by donating to a charitable cause and giving back in their name. Depending on how they passed, you may consider donating to a medical research organization or a hospice program. If you lost a grandparent who was living in a retirement community, you may find it healing to visit the home and spend time or bring a gift to their nurses and neighbors.
If your loved one hasn’t passed but is estranged, it can also be a healing act to volunteer or donate to a charity. If you have lost someone to addiction or substance abuse, consider giving to a local or nationwide nonprofit or a rehabilitation and recovery center. For those suffering from mental health illnesses, consider Mental Health America, or one of the local affiliates.
A Message for Those of Us Not Grieving
I didn’t understand the weight of my mother’s grief until I had other family members and friends pass in my later years. Even still, because I am fortunate enough to have my dad alive, I can’t fully know the depths of her pain in losing her own father.
We don’t often understand the grief of another person. Even if we have lost someone we love, experiences and emotional processes are unique to each individual. I’ll be the first to admit this feels frustrating. I want to be a safe space for my family and friends who are hurting; I want to know which questions to ask (or not ask); and I want to foster a safe space for mourning, especially during the holidays.
While being kind to those who are grieving is obvious, we also need to allow ourselves grace in the journey of caring for them. Being a pillar for someone in loss requires self-care and self-kindness.
We will not and cannot always meet our loved one’s needs, but we can try. We can do this by creating a safe place for the person in mourning. We can listen and remind them to feel whatever it is they need to feel. And we can take practical steps, such as taking on hosting roles, cooking meals, gift shopping, and communicating on their behalf.
We can also remember that there is no time limit to grief. Many people will feel the loss for the rest of their lives, and it is essential to remind our loved one that they are not expected to ‘move on’ or ‘get over’ their loss. My mom says that, even after twenty-four years, she never knows when something will trigger a flashback or a memory so visceral it overtakes her for a moment. “I have just learned that it's not if it will happen, but when, and I have accepted that,” she told me.
Anne Lamott writes it best. She says, “You will lose someone you can’t live without…They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
Kayti Christian, a staff writer for The Good Trade, is a storyteller, creator, activist, and avid traveler hailing from Colorado, now living in London. With 30+ stamps in her passport, she is passionate about responsible tourism and is always looking for new ways to be a more conscious traveler. She is currently pursuing her MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at City, University of London.