Open Mind: Grief and the holidays

“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style….” In the air there is the feeling of winter celebrations. Cultures the world over come together to celebrate. The days get shorter, the light becomes dim. We celebrate with lights, food, family and friends. 

It all sounds lovely. Unless you’re grieving. If you’re grieving, everything can be a painful reminder of your loss: the sound of holiday music, the scent of home baking, yearning to feel a loving hug or watch a movie you saved just for the holidays together. 

Even in the best of times, coping with the winter holidays can be overwhelming. During times of stress, we may have difficulty finding balance, rest and reassurance that we will be okay.

Planning ahead can be the best way to prepare if you anticipate a difficult season. First of all, do your best to be kind to yourself. Try to avoid setting standards that are difficult to meet, such as not crying, or putting pressure on yourself regarding things you “should” do.

Surround yourself with positive people who care for you. Creating a list of people you find supportive and accessible to you in times of need can be a reminder that you don’t have to be alone. Let them know that you are struggling and are finding it difficult to cope since the death of your loved one. 

Often people avoid talking about a death because they think that it will upset you. Open the door to conversation and let your friends and family know that it helps to say their name and share stories. Remember: tears are okay. Sharing stories and reminiscing is a simple yet powerful way to honour someone’s memory during the holidays.

Be sure to schedule activities in advance to ensure you’re not spending too much time alone. It’s often better to over-plan than it is to find yourself feeling isolated. If you have to cancel something, good friends will understand that you’re doing your best during this emotionally-charged season.

Experiencing deep sadness and missing your loved one is normal when taking part in traditions that you may have done for years and even decades together. Adapting traditions can help you feel connected by celebrating their memory. For example, some people will add an extra place setting at a meal to acknowledge a loss. Others offer up a special toast, or make their loved one’s favourite dish to share at the dinner table. 

Other groups of family or friends may take some quiet time when they come together to specifically remember the loss, and the wonderful memories that they have. You may wish to set out a special decoration or donate to a charity in your loved one’s memory. We can find a way to acknowledge that we always carry the spirit of love in our hearts for our dear ones who have died.

Also, don’t forget to take time to dedicate to self-care every day.  Arrange time with friends, treat yourself to a meal delivered to your home, pamper yourself with a haircut or even take time to soak in a warm bath.

Self-care doesn’t have to cost a lot of money; take a walk, make time for prayer or meditation, or simply relax and watch television at home.

Many people find that intentionally setting time aside each day to quietly reflect upon their memories and their grief can help cope with day to day demands. Think of it as a way to honour your loved one as well as your feelings of loss. It is a time of solace which helps you transition into your future while remembering your past. This can be as simple as thinking of your loved one while sipping your morning coffee, writing in a journal, or having a special item close by that belonged to the person who has died.

Coping during the holidays begins with caring for yourself, opening up to support from people in your community, and finding ways to acknowledge the person who has died. 

This year Hospice Wellington is offering two “Grief and Holidays Survival Skills Workshops.” If you would like more information, call 519-836-3921 x228.

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Trish Heyes is bereavement coordinator with Hospice Wellington. The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Trish Heyes