How to survive the holidays with extended family: grieving a loss

By Rita Buettner

Flickr Creative Commons

For families grieving the loss of a loved one, especially if the loss has happened during the past year, the holidays may be a particularly challenging time.

As families gather, some may want to acknowledge the loss—while others won’t want to mention the deceased family member at all.

La Keita Carter, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist, and Danielle LaSure-Bryant, Ed.D., a licensed clinical professional counselor, both from the Loyola Clinical Centers, offer advice on how to approach the holidays when a family is grieving.

Think about how you might want to acknowledge the loss at the holidays before attending a family gathering.

“If you’re really uncomfortable, if you don’t feel you can talk about dad because it’s too soon, tell family beforehand, ‘I’m struggling this, and I just don’t know if I could see a bunch of pictures. I totally understand that you guys want to look at old pictures after dinner, but I’m just going to pull back this year.’ Don’t go MIA. Let people know what’s going on with you.”

Consider that others might not be ready to celebrate a lost family member in a significant way at the gathering.

“If you know your sister is still struggling and you want to have some type of memorial service before dinner, let her know. Don’t surprise people. If there’s been a loss, don’t just show up with candles lit, and don’t show up not wanting to talk about it at all,” Carter says. “Allow people to have their emotional space to express themselves however they want to.”

Find ways to acknowledge the deceased loved one that would be comfortable for everyone.

When saying a blessing over the meal, you could include the loved one—either by name or more abstractly, “those who cannot be with us,” or “those spirits who have already left.”

A person can be honored in a subtle way.

“Remember that if you want to honor someone, it doesn’t have to be over-the-top or demonstrative,” Carter says. “At Christmas after my Aunt Maria passed away, my dad and I were getting the basement ready to play games, and I said, ‘Hey, don’t forget to play Stephanie Mills.’” When the family played games later, Aunt Maria’s favorite Stephanie Mills song was playing in the background.

Realize it’s normal to feel sad and to grieve.

“It can be helpful to reach out to others, especially if those feelings become overwhelming,” LaSure-Bryant says. “It is not necessary to be sad and stressed in silence.”

Even when grieving, the holidays can offer a reason to connect and reminisce.

“It’s natural for people to want to reach out and help each other,” LaSure-Bryant says. “Maybe there’s a person, with whom every time you talk, it’s stressful.  And you’d rather not reach out, but the holidays give you an extra reason as to why you should. It’s okay to verbalize your feelings of loss or reminisce about the deceased person. For example, one could say, ‘I really miss Uncle George.  Remember how much he enjoyed getting together for the holidays?’ Invite the family to share stories in honor of the deceased relative or family friend.”

Also in this series:

Preparing for the Family Gathering

Navigating conversation with your relatives

Are family gatherings mandatory?

The College Student Edition

Navigating family gift giving

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