Coping and Thriving with Loss During the Holidays


Coping and Thriving with Loss During the Holidays

This is my favorite time of year. Nearby mountains cloaked in winter white, gaggles of geese discussing where to winter, family and friends gathering and giving thanks and eating way too much pie and lighting candles and welcoming in a New Year.

And yet, the holidays aren’t the same when we bear the heavy responsibility of caring for a family member, or watching our beloved spouse slowly die of cancer.


Photo: Marlys Johnson


So I asked the experts—friends who have weathered profound sorrow—how they managed in this no-tidings-of-comfort-and-joy season.


A friend reported that his kids did not let him even think about not hosting the holiday meal in Vermont after their mom died: “We’ve fed as many as fifty people,” he wrote.

If you’ve always hosted the big dinner—and you still want to—but now you’re a full-time caregiver, then consider leaning significantly upon your friends and family. Assign guests to handle table decorations, side dishes, desserts, beverages, clean-up. Keep the tradition and distribute the load, and see if you don’t bring much joy by letting others help.


Photo by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash


In “Why Holiday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think,” Michele L. Brennan Psy.D., discusses the benefits of family rituals: “Whether it’s stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while the turkey cooks, or family movie night … traditions are a wonderful way to anchor family members to each other.”

Sometimes there’s a need for new traditions. My friend’s teenaged son died of cancer on his twin sisters’ birthday. The family now has a tradition of dividing up the day: “In the morning, we celebrate our son’s life, and in the afternoon, we celebrate our girls.”

Family and friends

One friend wrote about being rescued by a young couple: “They came to my home, made me get dressed, and took me to Christmas dinner with their extended family. I love their two little boys, so I had to pull myself together for them and I think they knew that.” During a time when you don’t feel as if there’s anything worth celebrating, let your family and friends love on you.

Lighting up the season

Last December, I exited a restaurant in a touristy section of town at dusk. Every tree trunk was wrapped with white lights that spread upward into the lower branches. And I found myself holding my breath at its simple beauty.

There is science behind the use of lights to help lift our spirits. Go ahead, light candles. Put up tiny white lights. Light the fireplace. Entwine more twinkly lights where you might not normally do so—I put lights in my houseplants at holiday time—and see if all that lighting-up doesn’t help chase away the gloom.


Photo by on Unsplash


Most people on our gift lists will understand if we need to streamline gift-giving this year. Shorten the list, or consider easy hand-crafted items: homemade granola, or a layered soup mix in a Mason jar with the recipe tied to the lid, or one of those cool hand-knitted slouchy hats. Because creating things can be seriously therapeutic. And because giving to people we love helps gladden the heart.


When my husband, Gary, and I were dealing with cancer, we learned to count what remained instead of counting the losses: 1) FaceTime conversations with grandkids; 2) snow falling; 3) fireplace flickering; 4) adjustable hospital bed that provides a better night’s sleep; 5) smell of pumpkin spice candle; 6) friends delivering a hot meal later this evening; 7) one more day together.

After Gary died, a niece gifted me with a small hardbound journal and I continued my gratitude list with the goal of numbering to 1,000. When I fill my life with gratitude, there’s less room for distress.

Giving back

The act of reaching out to others can help focus our attention off our own struggles. A friend told me about spending Christmas in a children’s hospital with her infant daughter. People sang carols in the hallways and Santa delivered stuffed animals and a home-sewn baby blanket. My friend now buys stuffed animals every year and takes them to the same children’s hospital. “It’s my favorite Christmas tradition!”


Trying to manage the care of a loved one on top of the normal seasonal hustle and bustle can produce double the stress. Here are a few de-stressing methods that have worked for me:

Take a walk. Ask someone to sit with your loved one and take a long, slow walk in nature. Pay attention to what surrounds you: Snow-capped mountains, fallow fields, water rushing over boulders, birdsong, smell of pine.


Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash


Make a ‘Deposit Here’ box. Find a decorative box and label it: “Things I Will Eventually Get To, But Not This Day/ Week/ Season.” Write down all that weighs heavily upon you, then place the slips of paper in the box instead of carrying the load.

Listen to music. Choose soaring music. Il Divo. Sarah Brightman. The Canadian Tenors. Identify the instruments. Guitar. Cello. French horn.

Keep a journal through the holidays. Write honestly about your hopes and fears. Every morning, I make a cup of tea and write in my journal, which has probably saved thousands of dollars in psychotherapy costs through the years.


Several friends, in response to my questions, indicated that their faith was a constant in their caregiving. Our faith in a God who sees the big picture nurtured Gary and me through cancer. And now, as a widow, that same faith encircles and strengthens me.


I have a friend who was widowed when her children were young. Years later, as the daughter was preparing to leave for college, she told her mom: “When dad died it was really horrible … but I like who I became.”

Which brings me to my Christmas Wish List:

  • I hope the sorrow of caring for someone you love, of watching them slip away from you, shapes you into someone you like, someone even more beautiful than you already are.

  • I pray we never stop looking for and counting blessings.

  • My wish is for unimaginable peace to shower down all around you.

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RoaringMouse 2.0

<a class='bp-suggestions-mention' href='' rel='nofollow'>@Marlys</a>.. Thank can hope!

RoaringMouse 2.0

This was a beautiful piece that you shared. Normally we would share or be invited over for the holidays. But this year (5 later) there's no one we can invite as they all have plans, and even my own child has chosen to not participate. Eating by myself and lighting the candles without sharing has been hard. But I'm hoping that maybe, just maybe something wonderful could happen Christmas Day! (If I confused you with the holidays...we are observing both Channukah &amp; Christmas in our home this year!)


Marly, thank you for this blog, the ideas and emotions of the season. This will be the first season we haven't gone to mom's house to open gifts as a family and had Christmas dinner there. Mom moved in with my husband and I in April and the house is empty. For her grandchildren, it is doubly hard because it hasn't been that long since we lost dad/their grandfather and the tradition of the day is so important to all for many reasons. We are planning on continuing the activities here at my house and have brought the stockings and family decorations over to intermingle with mine. We have talked openly about options and the need to continue the love of traditions while understanding the necessity for change in how or where. \r\n\r\nI also loved the idea of sharing responsibilities for dinner. I have traditionally fixed Christmas Eve dinner and now will be hosting Christmas Day morning gift opening and dinner. I love cooking for is therapy for me, but I also know I need to streamline and share so that I am not exhausted. Thanks for the reminder. And thanks for encouraging us to think proactively about ourselves, our careers and the holidays.