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Managing Grief and Loss Over the Holidays

Over my long and checkered life, I have many times been alone over the holidays. As this holiday season comes up, I will again be without my husband Terry, who took his life in 2020. I’ve found several ways to enjoy the holidays despite this loss: mitigate “anticipatory grief,” serve others, put myself in a larger context, and make the holiday a time of memorial and mourning.

Anticipatory grief is phantom dread of a certain event. I learned the term from a Buddhist priest when I was pre-mourning the death of my aging dog. “Don’t indulge in anticipatory grief,” he advised. Pre-grieving means that instead of suffering once, you suffer for weeks or months. As an antidote, the priest suggested that I cultivate awareness of this feeling so I could stop for a moment to acknowledge that today something else was happening. Anticipatory grief would weaken my todays. Having established this awareness practice before my dog died, I can now transfer it to other situations. Grief, in any case, has its own calendar, over which you have no control. You might inexplicably feel fine on Christmas. Living with “I don’t know” is difficult, but in reality, you don’t know what will happen on any future date.

Mitigating grief by serving others is advice you might hear in many places, from the church to the doctor’s office. Service is valuable not only because you help others, but it also affirms that you have something to give. That something depends on you.  I have sung in choirs that brought beauty to others on Christmas Eve, some people go caroling or feed underserved communities. You might have another talent to share. You knit or bake—I would have loved someone to help me wrap Christmas presents; mine are always dog-eared and messy. Babysit or dogsit for a neighbor or family member who would benefit from time away from household duties. Some people invite “waifs,” as one friend puts it, to their table. My family hosted a Mexican exchange couple, others invite new immigrants, travelers, or people at a loose end. You can host a holiday party for friends or neighbors. Opportunities for service abound.

My first Christmas away from home was in Laguna Beach, California, in 1960 The barren hillsides looked odd decorated with Christmas lights, and Christmas dinner was Beef Stroganoff. It all felt terribly wrong. How interesting that the rest of the world isn’t the same as me! About 30% of the world’s population is Christian, but Christians even diverge among themselves about how they celebrate Christmas, and Jesus himself never saw a reindeer. In Greece, Easter is the big family holiday; Christmas is not a big deal. In England, they celebrate on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. I spent one Christmas in Jerusalem and could see the lights of Bethlehem in the distance, but everyone around me was Jewish and went to work as usual, only dimly aware that it was Christmas. A vast majority of the world’s population has never heard of American Thanksgiving. Different calendars deem different days the New Year. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins ten days of observation ending in Yom Kippur, a solemn day of atonement, the Balinese celebrate their New Year in silence, the Chinese New Year is celebrated over 15 days, there is a Hindu New Year, a Muslim New Year, and each is celebrated differently. In Spain they eat twelve grapes at each stroke of the clock. Putting yourself, physically or mentally, in a larger context leads to the knowledge that you are not alone; there are a couple of billion people for whom this is an ordinary day. There are people in your own town who are not celebrating. Over Thanksgiving one year, I asked my eighteen students to list what they had eaten for Thanksgiving. No two menus were the same, and one Ecuadorian immigrant said she and her mother hadn’t celebrated at all. “There are just the two of us and we don’t know how to celebrate Thanksgiving.”

Maybe you don’t feel like celebrating; you’re still grieving, or loneliness has you beat. Set the quiet, distraction-free holiday as an opportunity for mourning and memorial. One Thanksgiving, I fasted. My memorial music is Bach’s double-violin concertos, yours will be something else. Candles, peace and quiet, music, even darkness can provide an atmosphere in which you honor your loss and remember. Embracing grief is not accepting defeat. If you’re sad, you’re sad. Being around people who are noisy and laughing forces you to do the same, while it may be healthier for you to create a place where you can touch your true feelings. Once, I was on the elevator in my building with an older woman who was holding a nicely wrapped small package. “Are you delivering a Christmas present?” I asked. She looked at me mischievously, smiling. “No. This is a Christmas present from my husband. He died thirty years ago, but every Christmas he’d get me a nice little present. So every year I buy myself a nice little present. I put it under the Christmas tree and pretend it’s from him.” That ritual somehow gave her peace and, given her mischievous smile, a measure of joy.

However you get there, I wish you peace and a measure of happiness over the holidays.