Lost a Loved One? Getting Through Christmas

Whether your loved one died this year or long ago, holidays without them can be painful. Here's how to plan, what to do, to get through and even hold out a sense of hope. A counselor gives tips.


While much of the world is excited about the holidays, those who have lost a loved one may dread it, said Barbe Creagh, Ph.D, a counselor who specializes in bereavement.

The Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations carry memories of the loved one, and painfully highlight the fact their place at the festive table is empty. But thinking and planning ahead, and acknowledging the loved one, can make the time more bearable, Creagh told about 30 people in a talk called "Grief and the Holidays" at the Park Ridge Senior Center recently.

Creagh, who is bereavement counseling manager at Rainbow Hospice, started the talk with a candle-lighting ceremony in honor of the lost loved one, included at the end of this article. It's appropriate during a holiday or even at a family gathering, if you choose. 

"We know they're still with us in some ways. People die but love doesn't die," Creagh said.

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She offered a number of tips for coping with the holiday period:

  • Encourage family members and friends to tell stories of your loved one during holiday get-togethers. "You may not remember something, but when someone else mentions it, you'll remember," Creagh said. "Whether they are physically here or not, the relationship continues as a relationship of memory."
  • Accept that you might have a lot of feelings come up, such as sadness in the midst of joy, or anger, or guilt or confusion. "In early grief, a part of your psyche is tending to the loss. That's why you're forgetting things," Creagh explained.
  • Be gentle with yourself during the holiday season--get enough sleep, eat right, and don't try to do too much if you aren't ready.
  • Consider that the holiday might just be a quiet day. If you do decide to go to a friend's or relative's house, consider driving by yourself, so that if you get overwhelmed, you can leave.
  • If it will be too painful to go through the usual holiday routine without your loved one, consider doing something different, such as eating out, volunteering at a soup kitchen or traveling out of town.
  • Make a holiday-season contribution to a charity or cause in honor of your loved one. 
  • If the death was recent, you may feel numbness on this holiday. Creagh said the second holiday without the loved one can actually be more painful. "To have grief for five years is normal. To have grief all your life is normal, but the intensity goes away," she observed.
  • Honor the loved one in some way during the holiday celebration, such as by using her china, or looking at and appreciating the tree he planted in the yard. "Linking objects remind us of that person and their love," Creagh commented. 

A Candle-Lighting Ceremony to Honor the Loved One

(Feel free to modify as you wish)

As we light these five candles in honor of those we love, we light one for our grief, one for our courage, one for our memories, one for our love and one for our hope.

First Candle

This candle represents our grief. The pain of loss is intense. It reminds us of the depth of our love. As we light this candle, we remember.

Second Candle

This candle represents our courage - to confront our sorrow, to comfort each other, and to change our lives. As we light this candle, we remember.

Third Candle

This candle is in memory of those we love - the times we laughed, the times we cried, the times we were angry with each other, the silly things we did and the caring and joy we shared. As we light this candle, we remember.

Fourth Candle

This candle is the light of our love. As we enter this holiday season, day by day we cherish the special place in our hearts that will always be reserved for those we love. We give thanks for the gift their living brought to each of us. As we light this candle, we remember.

Fifth Candle

And this candle is the light of hope. It reminds us of the love and cherished memories that are ours forever. May the glow of the flame be our source of hopefulness now and forever. As we light this candle, we remember.

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