Personal Growth

Honoring Lost Loved Ones During the Holidays

Couple looking at family photo album
Couple looking at family photo album

Something about the twinkly lights, early dark nights, and the cooler temperatures makes us want to reflect. The holiday season could really be renamed, yearnings of yesterday because of all the feelings that come up during this time.

Those sneaky nostalgia feelings combined with staying inside and all the interacting, or lack thereof, can bring up so many emotions. We may feel so much joy and delight as we watch how delivering a turkey to someone less fortunate lights them up. We may find satisfaction in knowing we found the perfect gift for someone. We may delight in the anticipation of Santa for the children in our lives. But there is one feeling that may present as less than welcome, the emotion of grief.

Grief: Bru-tiful and Necessary

Grief is something we don’t talk much about in our society. It is the white elephant in the room. We perceive that this is supposed to be a time of year where our cheeks hurt from smiling and our feet ache from shopping. But what if we are just not feeling that jolly? What if instead, we are feeling lonely, sad, or even angry? Experiencing these emotions at a time when there are families making memories on every commercial or couples falling in love in every movie, can make our situation seem and feel even worse than it is.

Grief can arise anytime life is showing us contrast, what, or who is missing from the dinner table. It shows up when we are alerted to what is not present. Seeing children anticipate Santa may highlight a lack of wonder in our own lives. Hearing about your co-worker’s promotion may illuminate how stuck you feel in your career. Grief is the perfect combination of nostalgia and contrast. It is heavy, it is sad, it can feel all-encompassing at times.

While there are many types of grief we may experience, the missing element I hear people express most this time of year is the loved ones who are no longer with us. After the 700,00 COVID deaths we have experienced these past 2 years, it seems like many of us are longing for the presence of those who are not physically with us anymore.

Grief and Love: Two Sides of the Same Coin

See, grief is actually just love with nowhere to go. The places we used to pour our love into are now lost and seeking a target. Think of a Roomba vacuum hitting a wall over and over. It wants so desperately to make lines in the carpet but it’s stuck in that corner unable to suck up the cat hair. It actually just needs a little redirection, just like our love.

For me, the holidays bring out brightness and light but they also remind me of times past and people lost. Every year on December 26th, I mourn that I am not riding in the car on the way to my grandparent’s house for roast, Yorkshire pudding, and making plays in the basement with my cousins. I notice at Christmas eve dinner the empty chair where my brother once sat. Even if he was playing his Nintendo, I still liked having him there to poke and roll eyes at when mom and dad said something weird. I am reminded of the ways in which I cannot actually have everything and everyone I want in my life at the same time.

The Stages of Grief

The bad news is, we never actually get over it but we can make sense of it. One of my favorite resources for grief is the book “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” by David Kessler. It talks about the 5 stages of grief which you may already be familiar with. Shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance but he adds a 6th stage, which I consider the most important.

These stages are not a comprehensive overview of one’s grieving process. There is no dedicated timeline or process for grief. These stages are not meant to be experienced in a linear way. They are simply what one might feel when noticing contrast or experiencing grief in their lives. However, the sixth stage is the one that holds the most meat.

Our brain wants to make sense of our experiences. It makes us feel safe when we have an answer for things and the sixth stage is one of the only stages of grief from which we can potentially create integration of the experience into our lives. The sixth stage is the place in which integration is possible. In integration, we take the experience/the loss and we attach a story, hopefully, one that comforts us in some way. However, all feelings around grief must be felt completely in order for full integration to happen.

How to Make Meaning: Create Rituals Around the Life of Your Loved One

Think of your favorite times with them and create rituals around recreating those times. Dedicate space and time to honoring the gifts that they gave you. For me, I watch The Sound of Music every year on December 26th and I can feel my Omi snuggled up next to me singing along to every word. Maybe your loved one had a favorite meal, outfit, tradition, or activity.

1. Make a list of all the things you shared with your loved one that felt meaningful to you, experiences, foods, music, etc.

2. Of that list, notice one or two things you might want to commit to doing in order to honor them. Think about the pieces of them that came out when they danced to that song, prepared that meal, or taught that yoga class. What is it that you saw about them through that experience?

3. Make a list of the specific qualities you saw in your loved one you want to honor. Perhaps you loved their unbridled joy that you got to experience when they watched that SNL skit. Or you noticed the precision with which your loved one prepared their annual cookies to give to neighbors.

4. Set aside a date/time when you will complete the ritual you have designed. Perhaps you invite others to participate with you or maybe you want to experience your ritual privately. Be sure to include any accouterment that may bring them to life with you during the experience, special foods, clothing, scents, etc.

5. After the completion of your ritual, do some reflection on what it was like to experience your loved one in this way. Did other memories arise? How did the feelings that came up express themselves?

6. As part of your reflection, think about how you might translate your loved one’s qualities into your everyday life. How can you bring their infectious laughter into the office on Monday? How might you translate their precision into your daily tasks, even if it’s just folding laundry?

The key to meaning-making is to find a way to make our loved ones live on and to take the best parts of them with us. For example, The Sound of Music was special to my Omi, a Jewish Austrian immigrant. It was one of the only times I experienced her nostalgia for her home country, as she had a complicated relationship with Austria.

Watching that movie, I honor her resilience, her fortitude, and her joy. When Julie Andrews sings “My Favorite Things” I can hear my Omi’s laugh, feel her warm hands, and smell her Chico’s jackets. I try to hold space for my own complications to honor her. I make space for other people’s complications in my work as a therapist and my life. I honor her by holding paradoxes of love and hate for myself and for others.

I hope however you are celebrating this holiday season, you take the best parts of your loved ones with you. I hope you find a way to bring them back to the table, even if just for a moment. I might be crying as I write this article but, I know that my tears are my grief. And my grief is just my love, in a different outfit.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.


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