Dealing with grief over the holidays


Dear Cathy & Mark,

Our beloved 72-year-old father died last June of Covid-19. He was generally healthy otherwise. My four siblings and I are devastated by our loss. Our father loved Christmas and always made it a special time for our family. Two of my siblings suggested that we carry on our family traditions as usual, but another one said we should get away and start new traditions on our own. I feel torn as to what to do and overwhelmed with emotions as I think of how it would be without our father. What suggestions do you have for helping make this decision and tips to help me get through the holidays as best I can? —Dazed at Christmas

Cathy: Please accept my deepest sympathies at the loss of your father. You mention no mother in your letter, so I’m assuming that your mother is no longer present in your lives as well. Technically, you are now all orphans. It’s a new season in your adult lives as siblings. 

Usually, it’s the parents who are the glue in the family. Siblings get together as one because their parents are still around. Family traditions and rituals that were begun by our parents are preserved and practiced for as long as the elders are still there. The holidays can be a testy and difficult time for everyone who has experienced a loss. This time of the year heightens the reminder about the empty seat at the table. 

When one’s parent passes on, it is an opportunity to create new rituals or to hold on to the old ones. There are no hard and fast rules. You may also opt to do both—create new ones, and continue to hold on to the old ones. The point is to do what feels right for you and not be pressured by your siblings. Will getting together as one family at Christmas help ease the pain of your grief? Or will it be a stark reminder of the one who is no longer with you? You may opt to go away with your siblings and create new rituals and then host a get together with your other siblings still during the holiday season. There are many ways to navigate this new normal without both your parents. 

Listen to your heart, and pray for guidance in making your decision. There are no right or wrong ways of celebrating the holidays and remembering your dad. Do what feels right for you That’s always half the battle won. 

Related: On a street in Brooklyn, prayer demonstrates power

Mark:  Sorry to hear of your loss. Facing the holidays for the first time without your loved one can be an emotionally draining and heart-breaking experience. When someone close to us dies we lose their life, but not our relationship with them. A loss like yours can feel like you’ve lost an important part of yourself. That’s a normal part of the grief experience and to be expected.

Deciding if you should stay home and celebrate “as normal” vs. building “new traditions” is an individual and personal decision that you need to make for yourself. Each of us grieves differently, in our own way and our own time. Expect that each of your siblings will grieving differently as well. Expecting that you will all agree on what to do during the holidays may be unrealistic.

For this first Christmas holiday without your father, it’s important to search your heart as to what feels right for YOU. How do you feel you can best personally honor him without overwhelming yourself? 

My own father died peacefully in my home two weeks before Christmas in 2004. I cared for him in the previous three months as he was in the final stages of lung cancer. Fortunately, he told me before he died, “I’m 89 and I’ve lived a full life. I don’t want you to be sad but be grateful for all we have done together.”  

We were very close, so I asked myself, “What would Dad want me to do now?” I sensed that he would want me to continue celebrating with my family the way we had in the past and feel free to remember him by sharing his stories on that day.

Taking care of yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually is critical. Self-care should be your top priority this season. If others see that as being selfish, so be it! There will be other holidays in the years ahead and you may make different decisions in the future as you navigate your grief journey.

We’d love to hear from you. Please email us at [email protected].

Cathy is in private practice as a grief, loss, and transitions coach. She is an author of four books, two of them on grief. 

Mark has been a registered nurse for 47 years and is an educator specializing in end-of-life care. He was director for training at the second largest hospice in North Carolina in the United States. —Ed.

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