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What to Do When Grief Overshadows Holiday Cheer


By Shauna Wilcox, Nurse Manager at Hospice Halifax

Happiness, togetherness, celebration – these are words often associated with this time of year, when many holidays are celebrated around the world. We see and hear this on our television screens, phones and radios, reminding us that this is a time of year for cheer. 

But for those who have lost a loved one, holidays and special occasions can be a time when grief intensifies; a painful reminder of those special moments, leaving us to imagine what they’d be doing if they were here.

While no two people grieve the same, there are ways you can support those in your life who are grieving during special occasions, and ways you can take care of yourself if you’re missing a loved one. Here are some guidelines:

  • Be open to talking: There’s a misconception that people don’t want to discuss the person they’re grieving, but they’re already thinking about them all the time. Most people love when others talk about the person they’ve lost. It shows that you care and are ok with their deep hurt.
  • It’s okay to cry: If they cry, be gentle and give them space to do so. Their hearts are breaking, their holidays have changed, and pain will be a part of special occasions from now on.
  • Listen without judgement: You might not always know what to say, and that’s okay. Listen without minimizing their experience by suggesting they look for a silver lining. Give their grief the space, tenderness, and love it needs 
  • Support and respect coping choices: They might not show up to the party, and that’s fine. Remember that many of their holiday memories were likely with that person, and things are drastically different without them. If they want to be alone, or want to take a trip away, respect that. 
  • Extend the invitation but don’t be offended if they decline: Understand that their plans may change. Grief changes day to day, minute to minute, and something they’ve said “yes” to one moment might be too much to bear the next.
  • Honour their loved one: Send a memorial gift, donate to a charity in the person’s honour, or send a card letting them know that you can only imagine how hard this is, and that certain times of the year are even harder. 
  • Offer practical support: Shopping, cooking, or cleaning is another gesture that goes a long way. Maybe the person they’ve lost made the meals or did the cooking, leaving those tasks as a painful reminder of what is lost.

If you’re reading this and you’re the one grieving:

  • Give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel: Grief might look like sadness, anger, or silence – so take care of yourself, whatever that may look like for you in your unique situation. 
  • Recognize that there is no obligation to perform holiday traditions as you once did: Tell your loved ones that you’re hurting, and that you can’t participate like you once did. Time does not heal grief. You’re doing the work and walking through the grief, not getting over it.
  • Ask for help when you need it: Seek a support system, whether it be loved ones, professionals, or a combination. Talk about the hurt and the pain.
  • Do things that bring joy: Grieving people can experience happiness and joy too. Write, draw, go for walks. Do things that help you feel close to the person you’re grieving, like hanging their stocking or putting out a memory box filled with special items that remind you of them. 

Happiness, togetherness, celebration – this is the expectation of the holiday season, but it’s not always the reality. These special occasions can highlight what we don’t have, and bring into focus the loss, grief, and sadness we have instead.

I think we all have to be acutely aware of how much others are suffering this time of year. Show thoughtfulness, love and acceptance.

And if you’re grieving, we recognize this time of year is heavy. We see you, we hear you, and we’re here for you.

Hospice Halifax is a compassionate and supportive community of staff members, volunteers, and donors dedicated to making dying and living as comfortable and as meaningful as possible at the end of life for patients and their families. Hospice Halifax offers free, regular one-on-one counselling, support groups, and programs for bereaved Nova Scotians looking for a safe, supportive environment to explore their feelings of loss. Learn more about format and availability: Hospice Halifax Programs.

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Hospice Halifax is a compassionate and supportive community of staff, volunteers, and donors dedicated to making dying and living as comfortable and as meaningful as possible at the end of life.  

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