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Lights, Loss, and Surviving the Holidays: 10 Tips for Grieving Families

by Tracie Martin

When the most wonderful time of the year isn’t…

Lights, lists, carols, crowds, family, the perfect gift, friends. This is often the stuff of a magical holiday. But for those living with loss, they can signal a minefield of emotions, triggers, and questions.  Facing the holidays after a loss can be daunting for a child, teen, or family. Young people living with loss, no matter where they are developmentally, can find the holidays as especially conflicted due to the fact that they in large part do get swept up into the energies of the season.  Many often report feeling guilt or shame about wanting to participate fully in the joy and hope of the season. Kids often are faced with needing to define their families most during the holidays, and gaps in their stories can be hard for them to navigate without having the tools to fully engage their family story.

Despite the fact that our friends and families may try to make us feel better or bring their holiday cheer to us, it can be a time of intense emotional swings and social situations that may require us to share ourselves before we are ready to on our grief journey. Creating a holiday that reflects an authentic and resonant space for our memories is important. A holiday plan that helps us to hold these mixed emotions in our hearts but also allows for release and connection is an important step on our path to healing. 


Adults in the lives of children and teens can help this by giving clear, direct messages about the losses that are present in the family’s history. By giving kids the permission and tools they need both to enjoy themselves and to mourn as needed, we open up a new way for them to see themselves, and to identify healthy coping in general.  The intentionality that can come from exploring the newness of a loss, or that comes from giving space to all losses as a part of the holidays also sets a family up for creating new rituals and traditions that can be powerful and lasting.


Remember that the pace you set for yourselves and your kids during this time can be all yours.  Listen to your body, your kid’s cues, and set your boundaries early and often on what you will commit to. Be intentional on how you will spend your time together. 

Manage your Expectations

Edit, edit, edit.  Keep your holiday plans simple as a way to deal to with stress and triggers associated with the holidays. Prioritize as a family. Only make the plans that make sense to how everyone feels and aligns with family energy. Think about what you can cut out or add that may bring an added sense of joy or peace. Create the room for feelings or longings for the ‘good old days,’ this is normal. Make sure that you make time for alone time too. 

Be Aware of Grief Triggers

The holidays are full of ideas, music, sights, and sounds that can trigger strong feelings positively and negatively. Build awareness in yourself for sights, smells, and situations that may cause you to become upset, sad, or angry.  Don’t be afraid to honor old commitments, or traditions.  Make a plan for alternate activities, or have a plan in mind for how you will handle unexpected bursts of emotion.  Have an exit strategy that promotes safety and boundaries. Communicate this to trusted people.  Take frequent breaks in social settings to avoid overwhelm.

Create New Traditions & Rituals

Creating new traditions and ceremonies for your family can be a very healing way to approach the holiday season. Thinking about new ways to celebrate and remember together can promote connection, create bonding time, and also build spaces to honor your loved ones’ memory. Take a moment to think about the things that mean the most to you as a family, or even as an individual. Use these thoughts and ideas as a starting point for your new normal during the holidays. Incorporate nature, quiet time, music, and other elements to create something that feels right to you.  Trust your gut, and listen to the cues that you get internally and externally for ways to celebrate and remember. 

Here are 10 ideas for new activities to incorporate into your holiday season:

  • Instead of decorations everywhere, light a candle.
  • Make homemade cards and presents instead of shopping
  • Bake cookies together
  • Set a place at the table for your loved one
  • Decorate picture frames to make a memory table, or display in your home
  • Journal together as a family or write Holiday Affirmations
  • Make a Holiday Playlist of favorite Songs
  • Have a family PJ and Movie Night
  • Serve the community together in honor of your loved one.
  • BE.



Are you grieving a loss of a loved one? Find support in one of our private discussion groups.

As a licensed clinical social worker, Alesia K. Alexander, MSW, LCSW, CT, has over 18 years of experience in community-based, non-profit, hospice, and mental health settings. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served on numerous boards and community organizations. She is a past board member for National Alliance for Grieving Children, 2009-2013, and has lent her time and talent to the National Alliance for Grieving Children and the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Alesia is also an accomplished author, having published several books, including one called Dream Clouds, a beautifully written and illustrated book that offers a child’s perspective into the experience of grief, and Tapestries: A Creative & Inclusive Approach to Grief Support for Youth & Communities. She currently serves as the national program director for Comfort Zone Camp.



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