How to Handle Grief During the Holidays

Celebrations and traditions can be a reminder to check in with friends, family, and ourselves to see how we’re feeling. Chances are, they’re struggling too. 

My eleventh Christmas on this earth was spent with only one parent. My dad had passed away from cancer in November, and as a family, we were recalibrating and trying to figure out how to be together without his presence. What was our new normal? The holiday season abruptly rushed upon us. We scrambled, emotionally, trying to figure out how to do things and celebrate when we each wanted to bury ourselves beneath blankets and never come out.


There is nothing quite like traditions and celebrations to force you into dealing with and processing your grief. The “business as usual” energy of daily life can become tolerable through grief, but traditions like birthdays or Christmas seems to make our emotions bubble up to the surface.

During that first Christmas, I remember everything feeling emotional… and heated. Everything was a trigger. Anything that happened would make one of us, usually my mom, upset or overwhelmed.

Disagreeing on dinner. Mom would check out.

The stress of buying gifts – as one parent – and in a busy, bustling store where everyone else’s stress levels are also high. Mom would check out.

No other adult to lean on and help process emotions. Mom would check out.

My sister and I were trying to tuck extra little presents in my mom’s stocking – hoping to make her smile or feel a smidge happier than she had been as she coasted through a broken hearted fog. But the heavy stocking fell off the mantle, smashing my mom’s favorite “circle of friends” statue (remember those?). The smash was symbolic of our family, and she erupted into tears when she found out.

My poor sister also erupted, feeling shame and guilt when she was trying to do good. Their crying chorus from each of their bedrooms replaced “Joy to the World” that year, and we rang in Christmas with sobbing instead of singing.

That was Christmas Eve.

I remember the holiday celebration on “my dad’s side” was especially stressful and upsetting, and we almost instantly felt out of place as a family, despite having spent every Christmas with these people around us.

But my dad’s energy wasn’t there with us anymore, and that totally changed everything.

The experience shaped every single Christmas for my family going forward. The importance of the holiday started to fall away as the years went by; the tradition of setting up the tree disappeared, and we even stopped having a tree all together. We stopped going to “my dad’s side” for Christmas, too. Once I was an adult, my mom peaced out entirely for Christmas and spent the holidays snowbirding in Phoenix.

When I had my son, it felt important to bring these traditions back, but in my heart they had lost their meaning and importance for me. But I did feel a pressure to offer him something… some kind of ritual; some kind of magic of the season. I felt hungry for new traditions and new narratives around the holidays but I knew it was more important to process and come face-to-face with my grief, that always had a way of popping up during December.

Because the holidays make grief fucking hard. And through my years as a financial advisor and selling life insurance and critical illness insurance to those who are ill, I learned and experienced first hand that most deaths throughout the year happen during the holidays of December and January. Death claims went up. Investments were withdrawn.

More stress. More pressure. More busyness.

So first things first: If grief finds you during the holidays, be that death, financial stress, mental or social anxiety, a job loss, a break up, loneliness or something else, I think the first step is to acknowledge that it is totally normal and even expected during this time of year. Statistically, this is an extremely stressful and difficult time, and we don’t need to smile through a façade for someone or something else.

Then it is a matter of allowing yourself to feel everything you’re feeling. If you’re unhappy, you’re allowed to be unhappy, and you don’t have to package up your emotions just because it’s a “joyous” time of year. Because in reality, a lot of us are upset and struggling at this time of year. In fact, MOST of us are, but the social norms tell us to celebrate, smile and be joyous.

Much of it is a ruse.

If we open up about the difficulties around this season, others will feel less shame and a small piece of their struggle and suffering will dissolve and give way, because a sense of understanding and community will take its place.

It’s not “bad” to show or release your suffering. It doesn’t need to hide away and be buried. If that feels more comfortable for you, that’s fine, too, but know there are options for you, and retreating isn’t the only one.

Lean on and open up to your community of people and those who love you. We can set aside the pressure of presents and resolutions and Instagram worlds, and lean on community and love and supporting one another during all times; struggle and celebration.

Celebrations and traditions can be a reminder to check in with our people or how we’re feeling. Because this time is actually about gathering. The gathering doesn’t need to be over dinner or over exchanging gifts; it’s just about the gathering. Being together. When we gather, I think we should help each other heal and recharge just by being in each others’ energy.

By just being.

How do you handle grief during the holidays? Share your experiences in the comments below. 

If you’re in a creative rut or trying to work through some issues, check out Vanessa’s #1 daily ritual: The Brain Dump. It’s changed her life! For tips on how to host a more mindful holiday party, read her tips here, and try making a Homemade Dream Pillow as a gift for friends and family. As you plan for the new year, learn How to Authentically Shift Your Resolutions Toward Wellness.

VANESSA KUNDERMAN is an openhearted writer and storyteller who inspires others to discover their own paths and personal stories. She has a diploma in Creative Communications, and teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Her website, Rogue Wood Supply, is a large resource of modern spiritual practices centered around crystals, botanicals, and the moon. As an intuitive and crystal guide, she hosts sacred women’s workshops, offers crystal readings, and shares weekly moon phase oracles online. Vanessa and her work has been featured in Refinery29The New Moon projectCottage Life Magazine, and more. She is a mother and cancer survivor living in the Canadian Prairies. Follow Vannessa on FacebookInstagramPinterest, and check out her website.

Photography: Monique Pantel