How to Cope With the First Holidays After a Loved One's Death

Tamsen Butler
Group of friends consoling their friend who is sitting displeased in a bar

Even during the best of times, the holidays can be exhausting and stressful. If you're facing the holidays after the death of a loved one, celebrating may be the furthest thing from your mind. In fact, you may wonder if you'll ever enjoy them again. However, by giving yourself permission to grieve, taking time for yourself and finding new ways to celebrate the holidays and the deceased, you can get through the holiday season.

The First Holiday After Loss

Don't be surprised if you feel your grief more acutely during a holiday (no matter what holiday), even if holidays weren't a big deal for you and your loved one. Witnessing everyone else getting together with family for holidays can trigger feelings of loss that you may have done a good job of ignoring so far. But some emotions can't be suppressed for long. Don't force yourself to take part in holiday celebrations if you don't feel ready; there is nothing wrong with declining invitations to protect your mental health as long as you don't stay secluded forever.

The First New Year's

The New Year is a time of renewal and new beginnings - use it as such. Set goals for your new life without your loved one and decide how you'll conquer this year solo. Is it time to join a gym or write out a budget or maybe even start pursuing a hobby you've always had an interest in? Setting goals can be incredibly therapeutic during an emotional time as it compels you to look forward.

The First Valentine's Day

If your loved one was your spouse or partner, the first Valentine's Day after they pass can feel particularly brutal, but it doesn't have to be that way. Focus on the love aspect instead of the romance aspect and show love in other ways. Volunteer with a local organization to spend time with retirement home residents or a community garden; this gives you an outlet to give some love without it being romantic. Don't use Valentine's Day as a catalyst to start dating if you're not really ready yet.

Red paper heart in female hands

The First Easter

Christians celebrate Christ rising from the dead on Easter, and this can certainly make it a challenging holiday to face after a death. If you have faith, focus on that during this challenging time. Attend Easter services, as they are typically optimistic and positive. If you don't have faith, Easter may be challenging simply because it's typically a family-centric holiday. If you're up to it, spend it with family and friends. You have people - you're not completely alone.

Woman hand lighting candles in a church

The First Mother's/Father's Day

If the deceased was your parent, holidays honoring parents will be challenging. Go into this holiday with some extra grace for your emotions since it will be tough. Spend some time reflecting on your parent when they were alive and maybe tell some stories to your own children or swap stories with siblings. After all, a parent who has passed can "stay alive" through the memories of the person who loved them.

The First Independence Day

If Independence Day was typically a fun holiday with your loved one, you may feel tempted to skip out on the fun because you feel strange or guilty for having fun without them. It's important to keep in mind on this holiday - and all others - that having fun is not in opposition to your grief. You're not dishonoring the memory of your loved one by watching fireworks, waving a flag in a parade, or kicking back and having a beer with friends. Allow yourself to have fun as it will be beneficial to your mental health.

Yom Kippur

If you're Jewish, you likely already know that Yom Kippur includes Yizkor - the honoring of the deceased. Jewish people can take great comfort in observing Yizkor, and may find some healing from this service of remembrance. As a communal event, you may take comfort in publicly grieving alongside other people who are all dealing with their own losses as well.

Halloween

If your community allows for trick-or-treating, use this time in honor of your loved one by handing out their favorite type of candy. Seeing kids appreciate something your loved one liked can be cathartic for you. Alternatively, if your grief is too raw, place a bucket of candy on your porch and let kids serve themselves so you don't have to deal with anyone.

Veteran's Day

If your loved one was a veteran, you may feel especially emotional on this day. Know that this is normal and nothing to be ashamed about. Most cities - especially cities near military installations - have Veteran's Day celebrations. Consider attending as these celebrations are typically quite complimentary of service members, making it a positive experience. If you cry, you won't look out of place as many people are emotionally moved at these events.

American soldier in uniform on memorial day

Thanksgiving

Since Thanksgiving is largely about spending time with family, this may be a particularly tough holiday to face after the death of a loved one.Only you can decide if you're ready to join other people in a big meal or if you need time to yourself. Take the time to honestly analyze your true feelings - will being alone make you feel sad, or will being around other people make you feel worse? Honor the stage of grief you are in and make your plans accordingly.

Kwanzaa

Those who observe Kwanzaa know that one of the principles is Umoja, which promotes community and unity. If you're feeling up to it, attend Kwanzaa celebrations with friends and family to help you feel more at community with the people around you. As Kwanzaa is not based in a religion requiring observation, it's fine to skip celebrating if you don't feel as though you can handle it.

Hanukkah

Since Hanukkah is centered around finding hope in desperate situations, participating in Hanukkah observance is completely appropriate for someone who is grieving. Those grieving during this time are typically encouraged to seek out help from those around them as part of Hanukkah tradition. Take advantage of the community around you during this time as they will likely be receptive - but if Hanukkah gatherings prove too emotionally painful to observe, or if you observe the traditional 12 months of mourning, participating may feel wrong.

Christmas

Christmas is one of the biggest holidays in the Western world and therefore difficult to escape from while mourning the loss of a loved one. It's particularly important during this time of the year to listen to your emotions; if being with other people seems weird or too stressful, politely decline invitations. Don't allow friends and family (who probably feel as if they're helping you) force you to attend holiday events if you know in your heart you can't handle it yet. On the other hand, don't automatically assume that Christmas is going to be awful without your loved one. Open your heart and allow yourself to enjoy the season, if it's a season that typically brings you joy.

Sad little girl is cuddling with her mother at christmas time

The First Birthday/Anniversary

It's important to acknowledge and reflect upon the death of your loved one on the first birthday or anniversary after their death. To pretend as though it's just another day is a mistake; how you deal with it in the first year will likely set the tone for all future milestone days in the years to come. Decide upon a fitting tradition to begin. Maybe look through photos, light a candle, listen to music the person loved, or write a letter to them about how much you miss them. Acknowledge your grief and allow yourself to feel sad. The death of a loved one is a big deal. You don't have to be strong all the time - especially on a birthday or anniversary following the death.

No Perfect Coping Mechanism

There is no cookie-cutter, approved method in dealing with grief on holidays. The first year following a death is particularly raw time and there is no clear-cut plan to follow. Listen to your feelings, allow yourself to feel your emotions, and if you find your grief overwhelming seek help from a mental health professional; it's not unheard of for some people to only visit therapists during specific holidays or anniversaries. Talking it out may help you cope.

How to Cope With the First Holidays After a Loved One's Death