Finding Holiday Joy Amid the Grief

If you've lost a loved one or suffered a setback, the holidays can feel hollow. Learn how to experience joy despite it all.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 08, 2007
6 min read

It's a disappointing truth: Holiday cheer can be difficult to come by if you're facing emotional pain caused by a loss. But experts urge us to muster our inner strength -- to find bits of holiday joy amid the grief.

Loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a divorce, illness -- all these bring grief to our lives, says Lisa Lewis, PhD, director of psychology at The Menninger Clinic in Houston. "There's loss when a child leaves home for college, or when a child gets married. These are normal transitions, but they do create a sense of loss."

"Even at the best of times, the holidays are stressful -- but when there's an additional emotional burden, they're especially difficult," says Paula K. Rauch, MD, director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"When there's a loss or a change in our lives, our traditions must change -- and that's hard because we will miss our favorite things," notes Rauch, author of Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent Is Sick. "People do well to anticipate how changes will affect those traditions. It's important to be open to new traditions. Take the best of the old, borrow from new people in your life, and create new traditions."

Indeed, the traditions are what tug at our hearts. "Holidays symbolize a time when people come together," explains Susan Apollon, a counselor licensed as a psychologist in Pennsylvania. "The holidays represent a myriad of memories accumulated during your lifetime," she tells WebMD. "If you've had wonderful times, you hope for the same good times, having all your family together. Even if you haven't had that, you hope for it."

Though the holidays can be difficult, they can also be a time of healing, says Apollon, who authored the book, Touched by the Extraordinary. "Allow little miracles by opening your heart and experiencing connections with loved ones. You're entitled to find some joy."

"People think they should be happy all the time, but that is an unrealistic expectation for life," Lewis tells WebMD. "Life is much more complex than that. If we can welcome the full range of emotional experience as part of a normal, healthy life, it takes some of the misery out of normal unhappiness and grief.

"If we allow ourselves to have those emotions, they will actually pass more quickly than if we push them away," she says.

The feeling of separation is indeed poignant at the holidays, says Apollon. "It's important to feel safe in facing your sadness, letting yourself cry when you need to. You have to experience the sadness to get past it," she tells WebMD.

Then call a friend and meet for coffee -- or do something equally comforting, she adds.

This is no time for idealized visions and big pressures, Lewis advises. "Nothing can live up to expectations of a Norman Rockwell holiday. You can put a lot of energy into making your vision come true, and very often it doesn't. Nothing is ever going to be that rosy."

Be open to what spontaneously occurs, Lewis says. "Then you won't feel the pressure to turn every holiday dinner into a picture postcard. Be in the moment and awake to whatever happens in the moment."

So the cranberry sauce doesn't taste quite right -- so what? Focusing on flaws makes for an unhappy experience, she explains. “If you can just be present and taste the food you spent four hours cooking, you will notice that much of it tastes really good.” If your son has a bad haircut, just let it go. Enjoy your conversation with him and everyone else at the table. “If you allow yourself to experience it, the moment will be fresh and happy and joyful," says Lewis.

Because we love our traditions, change doesn't come easily, notes Rauch. "It's important to take stock of favorite old traditions like sitting around the fireplace in your big old house. Now you're in a small condo, alone after losing your spouse -- and the family is scattered across the country."

Examine the most special aspects of that tradition, she advises. "Maybe that's when the family shared stories. This year, line up a family conference call instead. Think about what makes traditions special -- then come up with creative ways to make a new tradition to fit your new situation."

When a parent is seriously ill, it's important that the whole family brainstorm on how to spend the holidays, notes Rauch. "You may not be able to travel or have all the relatives over for the big dinner. Talk about the traditions and what matters most to everyone -- and the best aspects you can salvage."

You might watch Christmas movies together. Have the big meal earlier in the day if a sick parent is particularly tired. If the kids love their cousins' swimming pool -- but you can't travel this year -- find a pool in your own town. "Be creative," Rauch says. "Find ways to celebrate."

Creating new traditions is part of healing -- but it can be hard, says Apollon. "When a mother, father, spouse, or child dies, your heart's not in it. You don't feel like doing it.

"Do what you can," Apollon advises. "Maybe you want to go somewhere so you won't be at home during the holiday. If you want to leave town, take a vacation. You've got to do what feels right for you."

Scale back on decorating the house if you don't feel like it, she adds. "Find joy in doing things in a smaller way."

Light a special candle to celebrate someone you love. Create ornaments with a photograph. "It's important to find ways to honor your loved one -- a way that feels comfortable for you," Apollon tells WebMD. "Make cookies that grandmother used to make. Or serve dad's favorite main dish in his honor. Watch their favorite movie together. These are all ways to connect with that person."

A visit to the cemetery is a tradition for many people. Take that moment to talk heart-to-heart with your loved one. Or use a journal to have a conversation. Get out the photo albums.

With a death in the family, it helps to focus on the richness of a life well-lived, says Rauch. "When you share stories about that person, you're filling your heart with that person -- since they can't fill your living room anymore. While there is sadness, there are often a lot of happy, funny, rich memories that can be shared. "

For the child who has lost a parent, it helps to talk about school, about things they knew made their parent proud, Rauch adds. "When a parent dies, the child can carry the best of them in their hearts. It's a means of strengthening that relationship, that memory."

Apollon counsels many parents who have lost a child. "It's important to give holidays a different meaning -- since meaning determines how you feel about your life," she tells WebMD. "Do something in honor of your child. If his football team did a charitable event every year, get involved in that. Buy the gifts you would buy for your child, then give them to a needy child. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or hospital for children."

As the holidays unfold, tune into small joyful moments, Apollon advises. "When you hear the laughter of children, focus on how good that feels. When you eat a piece of pie, really taste it. In the moment, it tastes so good -- and in that moment, you're outside your grief."Also, look for opportunities to laugh. "When you're laughing, your brain produces endorphins to boost the immune system," she says. "Give yourself permission to find things that make you laugh."

A cautionary note: "If it feels impossible to imagine the holiday as anything but unbearable, you might be severely depressed," says Rauch. "You need to see a doctor."

Symptoms of depression include: sadness, loss of enjoyment, loss of energy, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, digestive problems, change of appetite, and thoughts of death or suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, get advice from your health provider or a referral to a mental health professional.