Chapter 1: Support strategies

Strategies for the holidays

I've been there
David shares how he and his three sons approached the first Christmas after the death of his wife Erica.(3:22)Video transcript

I wanted to close my eyes and ignore the holidays that first year. But when I realized how excited the kids were, I did my best to stick to our family traditions. It wasn’t easy. Their mom loved the holiday season which made it even more difficult.

Cultural and religious holidays that are typically times of celebration can be very difficult for a grieving family.  The empty space left by someone who has died may feel bigger and deeper. Common greetings such as “Happy Holidays!” can feel almost cruel. Many families find the first year or two after the death to be particularly difficult. 

It’s not uncommon for adults to wonder if they’ll ever enjoy this time of year again. Some discover that their fearful anticipation of the season is worse than the actual holiday. Others just try to “get through” it all and “survive.” Some find unexpected comfort, connection, and even meaning in traditions and rituals.


Feeling the feelings

Children grieve differently than adults. This is also true during holidays.  Many parents are surprised by their children’s ability to find joy and excitement in the season even when a death is recent.  Let your children know that its okay to enjoy the holidays and have a good time while there are grieving.

While grief may surface from time to time during the holidays, the excitement often serves as a welcome break for children who are grieving. Some children find the time after the holidays to be the hardest as the difficult thoughts that were pushed aside during the celebration crowd back again.  

When these holidays fall during the cold and dark months of the year in the northern hemisphere, grief can intensify for children and adults mourning a loss.

Encourage your children to express whatever they’re feeling when those emotions arise.  Listen to them and don’t try to distract them from what they’re feeling. 

If you’re finding this time of year particularly difficult, let them know.  Reassure them you’re happy they’re experiencing the joy of the season. 

Let visitors know that “all feelings are welcome” in your home.


Holiday traditions

When a death is recent, many adults wonder if they should continue with holiday traditions, change them entirely, or take a break from them for a year. It may help to remember that there’s no right or wrong way to spend the holidays.

Ask your children how they would like to spend this time. Are there traditions they’d like to keep? Should new ones be created to fit the change in your lives?

Do what’s right for you and your family.


It’s okay to say no

These are often times of many events and invitations. Include your children in deciding which events to attend. Don’t hesitate to decline invitations with “We’re just not up to it this year.” 

Know that it’s okay to make plans then change them closer to the time.


Traditions of remembering

Creating traditions to remember the person who died helps families with their grief. Choose some holiday activities that help your children express their grief and connect to the person who died in creative ways. These will be different for each family. 

  • Make ornaments or decorations with photos of the person.
  • Put together a memory or photo book.
  • Create a recipe book of the person’s favourite meals.
  • Participate in activities they enjoyed such as walks in nature and playing board games.  
  • Buy a gift they would have liked and donate it.

In many traditions, the holidays are also a time of quiet contemplation and remembering. Invite children to share holiday memories of the person, even if this brings up feelings of sadness and longing.


Honouring the person who died

There are many ways to maintain bonds to the person who died and keep their memory alive for your children.

  • Write down the traditions they enjoyed. In this way, they’re captured and can be continued by future generations. For example:
    • Making gingerbread houses.
    • Decorating the house in a particular way.
    • Playing certain music.

  • Light a candle in their honour.

  • Set a place for them at the holiday table.

  • Make their favourite holiday foods.

  • Share stories about them.

  • Make a donation to an organization or cause that was significant to them.
  • Volunteer for an organization or cause that was important to them.
  •  Make a toast to them at a meal or event.