Events & Updates

Coping with Grief during Holidays, Birthdays, Anniversaries, and Other Milestones

The tips and insight below often refer to holidays, but these tips can be applied to any significant days in which the loss of your loved one feels amplified (ex: birthdays, anniversaries, due dates, etc.).

The first year is usually the hardest

Because we don’t know what to expect, the first year’s holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and other milestones can seem overwhelming as they approach for the first time. We may want to feel a certain way but we find we feel completely different when the day has finally arrived. We may place heavy expectations for the day and find our expectations aren’t met. We may not know how to feel or how to handle the special occasion. We may also expect to feel deep grief or sorrow, and be surprised if we feel “fine”, which can sometimes lead to unwanted (and unnecessary) feelings of guilt.

Plan ahead

Oftentimes the anticipation of the approaching holiday can feel worse than going through the actual day itself. To ease this discomfort, try planning ahead by using a Plan A/Plan B approach. Plan A might involve spending these significant days with family and friends, while Plan B might mean have a small celebration or dinner at home. Having a Plan B can be comforting even if you don’t end up using it.

Arrange a family meeting

Discuss how you would like to spend the holidays or other significant days. Let everyone in your family have a sayeven the children. Be prepared to allow compromising.

Consider traditions old and new

One of the most difficult aspects of the holidays is traditions.

Some traditions may be significantly related to your loved one. Maybe there is an activity that your loved one especially enjoyed doing, and continuing the tradition or modifying the tradition and continuing it with family and friends could make it even more meaningful.

On the other hand, some traditions may have lost some of their joy after the loss of your loved one, and may even feel overwhelming to continue. If you always prepared the family meal, you may want to consider having dinner with relatives or family or going out for dinner, or you may find that going on a short trip during the holidays is a welcome change.

Remember that if you try something new and it doesn’t work, you do not have to keep doing it! Do not discount the possibility that new traditions can be started.

Allow yourself, and others, to grieve

It is important to recognize that every family member has his/her own unique grief experience and may have different needs related to celebrating the holidays. No one way is right or wrong.

Dr. Christina Hibbert says “Sometimes it is healthier to cry and mourn. Sometimes, it’s healthier to laugh and celebrate. Sometimes, it’s healthier to just let it be another day, and sometimes, it’s healthier to look ahead and plan the day.

I’ve spent such days going for a hike, writing in my journal, sleeping in and napping later, speaking about my loved one at a book club or other event, playing with my kids and remembering as we send balloons up to heaving, reading in a hammock, calling and talking with my family or friends about them, sharing my feelings with my husband, or sobbing in a bath. Each of these has felt right for that day and for that time of my progression through grief”.

Take charge of your social life

Although you may not feel like getting together with anyone, consider accepting a few invitations to be with close family or friends. Choose to be around people who make you feel supported and comfortable.

Scale back

Grief can be exhausting-mentally, physically, and emotionally. Consider scaling back where you can. Perhaps you can cut back on holidays tasks such as sending cards, baking, or decorating.

Be gentle with yourself

Accept that feelings of anguish are difficult to avoid during the holiday season. Do not expect too much of yourself, and recognize that you are doing the best you can. Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate your mood. Try to avoid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Consider self-care strategies; perhaps you can write in a journal, exercise, or treat yourself to buy something you’ve always wanted.

Have an exit strategy

Sometimes it is difficult to be around a lot of people while you are grieving. If you do go to a social gathering, you may not want to stay very long. This problem can be dealt with by developing an exit strategy in advance. Perhaps this means driving yourself to an event so you can leave when you are ready, or perhaps it means shopping online this year instead of subjecting yourself to the crowded stores.

Draw comfort from doing for others

  • Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of your loved one
  • Invite a guest who might otherwise be alone for the holidays
  • Adopt a family in need during the holiday season
  • Find a place to volunteer 

Honor your loved one’s memory

There are many ways to honor your loved ones. Go around the table and share a story, light a candle in remembrance, look at photo albums together, or donate in his/her name.

Here are some additional ideas:

  • Offer a dinner prayer or toast to your loved one
  • Purchase a gift for your loved one and then donate it to a charity
  • Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations
  • Place a commemorative ornament on the Christmas tree
  • Give a monetary donation in the amount you would have spent on gifts to a charity in the deceased’s name
  • Hang a special Christmas stocking in memory of your loved one
  • Purchase a small tree from a nursery, decorate it, and replant it after Christmas

Although these special tributes may cause some tears, they are usually helpful and therapeutic in coping with the holidays and other significant days throughout the year.

Consider attending a support group

During the holidays, it can be particularly useful to interact with people who have experienced a loss that is similar to yours. Such individuals are likely to understand exactly what you are going through. In many cases, members will also be able to share strategies for dealing with the challenges of the holidays.

Support the grieving children involved

Be prepared for any type of response from grieving children. The death of a loved one during this time of their lives is very difficult. Be patient with them.

Children sometimes may try to be “Strong” and protect other grieving adults by bottling their emotions or by taking on additional responsibilities. Remember that they should not be used as a crutch and that they need to be allowed to grieve, too.

Many families have found that creating a special activity for the children to participate in can be meaning and comforting to them. Although the adults should provide input and guidance, the children should decide what they would like to do.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Have the child help bake cookies for a nursing home, hospice agency, or other group that had meaning to the deceased
  • Plant a tree
  • Have the child write a note or draw a picture for the deceased. Take it to the cemetery and bury it in a small hole, or send it up into the air with a balloon



Hibbert, C. D. (2015, April 16). Grief & Loss: Dealing with Death Anniversaries, Birthdays, & Holidays.  Retrieved from Dr. Christina Hibbert: Overcoming, Becoming, Flourishing: 

VITAS Healthcare. (2016, October 11). Coping with Grief During the Holidays. Retrieved from VITAS Healthcare: 

Zerbe, L. (2015, December 3). 9 Ways to Deal with Grief During the Holidays. Retrieved from Rodale Wellness: