5 practical ways to navigate grief during the holidays

While the holidays are often celebrated as “the happiest time of the year,” for those who have lost a loved one, it unexpectedly becomes the loneliest and most somber season. Angela Kennecke, founder of Emily’s Hope, knows this firsthand after the loss of her 21-year-old daughter, Emily.

“Grief intensifies over the holidays, no matter how long ago you lost a loved one. For me, Christmas was Emily’s favorite holiday,” Angela shared during a Grieving Out Loud podcast episode. “She was my kid who cherished every tradition, and we had to follow every tradition the same way every year. She was always so excited about it. She was my adult kid who returned to make fudge with me.”

After Emily’s death, Dr. Mark Vande Braak, a grief educator, played a significant role in Angela’s grief journey. In a Grieving Out Loud episode, he shared five practical tactics to improve the grief journey over the holidays.

1. Schedule Your Holiday

Vande Braak found that the actual day of Christmas isn’t as challenging as the anticipation. To prevent a difficult buildup, he recommends planning your day strategically, scheduling time to focus on your late loved one.

“What time are you getting up? What time are you going to have breakfast? Spend some time being with your loved one and talking to them. Spend half an hour or 45 minutes engaging in conversation,” Vande Braak said. “It sounds abstract, but if you trust your heart, you know what they would be telling you. We’ve just got to pay attention because our brain complicates everything.”

2. Include Your Late Loved One In the Celebrations

Even though your loved one is no longer on Earth, Vande Braak recommends including them in your holiday celebrations, such as setting a plate at the table or hanging a stocking.

“For example, why don’t you buy a gift for your loved one? Who says you shouldn’t? Then, when Christmas is over and the gift is still there, it’s very touching, but maybe that’s something you could donate somewhere,” Vande Braak said.

Vande Braak emphasizes that, even though your loved one is gone, they remain a part of your story. Embrace that connection.

“When are you and your loved one going to make some fudge this year?” Vande Braak asked. “When you’re making it, guess what you get to do? You have a conversation with them. You spend time with them.”

3. Change Your Holiday Traditions If They Feel Too Painful

Vande Braak acknowledges that some holiday traditions feel too painful without your loved one, especially if it’s a recent death. Don’t be afraid to change your plans, and create new memories.

For example, Angela thought it would be too difficult to celebrate her first Christmas without Emily in their house, so they planned a trip to go skiing.

During an upcoming Grieving Out Loud episode, life coach Lynn Gillette talks about how this can be helpful.

“We have some options. One is to choose to continue with that tradition. It’s something that we carry on. The other option is to cherish it and say, ‘You know what? That was a special tradition, and I think I just want to cherish it. I don’t want to change it, and I don’t want to choose it. I just want to keep it in my heart forever the way it was,’” Gillette said.

Gillette says that asking your family members about their preferences takes the pressure off those planning the events.

“To know that we don’t have to make all the decisions, and we don’t have to know all of the answers. All of us are hurting, and all of us are healing, and so how do we want to heal together,” Gillette said.

However, Vande Braak cautions that you shouldn’t run away from your grief, and switching traditions alone isn’t going to help you overcome your grief.

4. Write To Your Loved One

Writing to your loved one may seem unusual, but Vande Braak claims that it’s one of the best techniques to help with healing.

“There is something amazing that happens when you have a written conversation with your loved one. Write, set the paper down, go get a cup of coffee or some juice, then come back and read it to yourself. When you read it, it becomes a filter. You get to determine what you put in your heart and what you don’t need to hold on to anymore,” Vande Braak said.

Holding onto positive memories and thoughts, rather than your loved one’s death, can be very healing. Those positives start to outweigh all the negative images that we have in our brain.

“It’s so easy to get lost in all the negative imagery. It’s so easy. What went wrong? What I could have, should have, would have done,” Angela said.

“Yeah, but ask yourself, how is that helping you? If you’re that powerful, and you could have controlled it, then you would have. If you can say it’s not helping me, then you have to stop it,” Vande Braak replied. “Guilt is a word that should have never, ever been invented.”

5. Focus On The Gifts From The Loved One

Intentionally work on building a relationship with your late loved one. Remember that they are a part of you and your story, and use the gifts, whether it’s the warmth of their love or a skill like playing the piano, to improve the world.

“How can you focus on these gifts? Try doing good things in the world,” Vande Braak suggested.

Keep these gifts close to your heart. Even though they’re not here physically, you can still feel connected to them. Just open your heart, and you’ll find that the relationship lives on.