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Holidays and Grief- Have Three Plans

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

The Holidays for many can be a magical time, a reunion for families, revisiting traditions from years past, but it can also be a lonely and depressing time for many. Especially when dealing with loss. Close to five years ago I lost my mother to cancer, and the holidays have felt different ever since.

For some the holidays can be a reminder where family members carried traditions that no longer take place, or even regrets of opportunities missed.

Celebrating the holidays for me has made me more sympathetic to those who have experienced loss. While my family is still very big and we’ll continue to have celebrations it has taken me almost five years to get to this place to fully appreciate them.

I remember the first major holiday of Thanksgiving so vividly. I knew it was up to me to keep my mom’s recipes continuing. I had prepped myself emotionally in advance to know what I needed to execute, and then the week of Thanksgiving arrived. And I couldn’t remember her stuffing recipe. I broke down in the middle of the grocery store, wishing I could call her just so I could check on the ingredients knowing well enough no one would pick up. My heart sank at this reality and the emptiness consumed me right in the middle of the produce section. It didn’t matter if anyone saw me cry, I knew I wasn’t the first to experience grief, but I knew I had to keep going.

I’ve thought about that experience a lot as we approach another holiday season.

So what are ways you can navigate grief when its all too consuming?

To give you a magic recipe of how to approach this wouldn’t be fair, because in reality there is no right way. Each person experiences grief differently just as they experience the holidays differently. Yet there was one piece of advice that stuck out that first year and it helped me navigate the holidays so much better.

Someone told me to have three plans. Make a plan, change the plan, or cancel the plan. It seemed so simple but this allowed me to steer my path on a road I didn’t want to go down.

Plan One: Make a plan

Sometimes its good to make a plan. When your dealing with grief, you don’t know how you’re going to feel. Even the most controlled pragmatic people will find that something might set you off in grief, so having a plan helps you keep a focus. That plan might be to continue as usual, or that plan might involve not celebrating for the holidays and doing something completely different. Our first year of Christmas without my mom, my family and I attend mass at our local parish. I couldn’t bear the thought of running into friends so we planned to attend another church. It was different than what I was use to but I knew I could carry on. Making this plan allowed me to keep the tradition but helped keep my emotions in check in public places. Plans don’t have to be elaborate they just have to serve a purpose of direction. Maybe your plan is to avoid old traditions , or maybe your plan is to start a new one, whatever the case make a plan to do something.

Plan Two: Plans could change:

Know that your experience with grief changes. Especially the earlier you are in the loss. What you "thought" you might have been ready for might turn out to be not so great, but letting others know you might not stick with the plan. Maybe you planned to go to your sister-n-law’s house but now you find yourself crying every time you think of the loss of your brother, so you’d rather go to the movies. It’s not the present company, it’s the lack of present company that's hitting you. Be okay with changing plans. Let others know beforehand that while you intend to follow through its just a rough year and you want to see how it goes. Plans aren’t set in stone. Navigating grief that first year can be tricky and you may find that while your initial goal was there you’re just not ready for it. So come up with a different plan but letting others know in advance gives you a pass and people are more understanding and flexible.

Plan Three: I can’t go through with any plan

As good as our intentions are to keep the holidays merry and joyous, it sometimes doesn’t happen. Allow yourself to be flexible. Lower your expectations of what the best Thanksgiving or Christmas should look like. That first year, I put very little expectations on Christmas. I was fortunate to put my energy on my family and children, but I didn’t willingly volunteer to bring food to my in-laws, and they were gracious enough to not expect me to. I know that some of my friends who have experienced loss wanted to spend the whole day alone, and that was what they had to do to get through it. I realized that allowing myself this "out"of not making a plan, helped remove the pressure. I knew that holidays in the years to follow might look different, and they would change, but having that first year of no plans was just what I needed.

As we approach this season, make a plan, change your plan, or cancel your plan. Whatever the choice, allow yourself the grace to know that time helps heal in the process and when the holidays are over, you can see what helped you make it through.


Lastly, ask God to intervene in all three plans. You might find that his comfort through this difficult time will bring some comfort to your season in the most unexpected place.

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