Navigating grief during the Holidays

Jayne B. Stearns
PointsettaMarko Makinen

For many people, especially those who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one, the holiday season brings into laser focus everything that is difficult in living without that beloved.

Christmas carols can become funeral dirges, gift-giving may be perfunctory, and you may wish the season would pass quickly so you can slip as far away as possible from the plague of pressure it creates to be full of holiday joy and cheer.

We all handle grief differently because we’re all different. The Hospice Foundation of America suggests navigating holiday grief with these three C’s of coping:

  1. Choose which functions you want to attend
  2. Communicate the whys of your choices to relevant others
  3. Compromise on things like the amount of time you want to stay at a function, etc

Coping aside, holiday or no holiday, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, which may be the only bright light in the process of grieving. For instance, my mother died in the early morning hours of December 26th, but I didn’t take my Christmas tree down until April 15th of that same year.

I didn’t know why at the time, but it was part of my grieving process.

That year, I spent that Christmas Eve by my mother’s side, watching her chest rise and fall with each diminishing breath, the morphine for the intolerable pain of lung cancer, doing its job to ease her transition.

I spent Christmas Day watching the color of her skin change from pale pink to pallid gray as her soul slowly retreated from her body, then departed. It seemed as if with one brief inhalation and exhalation, she was gone. Her death was like her: a gentle whisper, a hush. I laid my head on her stomach and wept. It was 2:10 am and the vigil was over.

Death is a busy thing. There are people to call, documents to peruse, bills to pay, arrangements to be made; all of it done in a state of mind that would resemble catatonia if it weren’t for the sobbing spasms that grip your gut and pitch your body into contortions at the most inappropriate times. Her dying had been the focus of my life for close to a year.

Her dying had become my life.

Now that she was gone, I stood there in the empty house and didn’t know what to do with myself anymore. And so I did what anyone else would do under the circumstances: I checked the water level in the Christmas Tree stand. It was empty.

Seven feet of Scotch Pine laden with hundreds of lights and tens of ornaments requires frequent hydration. It’s a thirsty organism and this one had been, understandably, neglected. I filled the teakettle with tap water and poured it into the base of the tree, then because I had been awake around the clock for days, tried to get some sleep. The next morning I checked the tree again and noticed it had already absorbed the water from the day before. I watered it again and kept watering it until the days turned into weeks, December turned into January, January into February, February into March, and March into April. For some reason, I couldn’t allow the thing to die. I needed to keep it alive.

The tree had become a metaphor for my mother.

I don’t know what Freud would have to say about that, but at first, my friends thought it strange; as did some family, as did some co-workers and anyone else who happened into my living room where the tree stood still ornamented and brightly lit.

Some asked me outright, what it was still doing there. Some pretended to ignore its existence as if to mention it would disturb my fragile relationship with reality. Others found it eccentrically interesting, like pasting shoes to one’s forehead would be interesting. Luckily, others understood the metaphor it became in my grieving world.

I worked, grocery shopped, paid my bills, and maintained all the outward signs of a non-grieving life.

As the first crocuses of spring peeked their purple and yellow flowering heads through the topsoil, and the April 15th tax deadline loomed, I finally took the ornaments and lights off the tree, packed them away, carted the tree through the house, down the steps, and out to my car. Then I tied it atop the roof and brought it to the landfill. By that time, the Christmas Tree section was no longer accepting trees. So, on the drive home, I lugged it in the woods and left it there, allowing it to eventually become one with its surroundings.

“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
-Genesis 3:19

So, if you find yourself creating weird holiday rituals in an attempt to assuage your grief, or if you just want to sit this holiday season out; do it. It’s OK. The pressure is off.

Conversely, if you feel you need to keep busy by channeling your grief into attending every corporate party and holiday stroll offered, that’s OK, too.

Try to remember that for a time, the happiest memories may cause the greatest pain, especially when experienced within the context of the holiday season. There’s no easy way around it, so be patient with yourself.

We grieve deeply because we love deeply.


If you are struggling with grief this holiday season, most local hospitals and hospice agencies hold support groups to help you navigate the process. Give them a call. You're not alone.


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Jayne is a freelance writer, published poet, and award-winning playwright who specializes in writing human interest stories and anything else that satisfies a multitude of curiosities.

Holyoke, MA

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