Coping With Grief During The Holidays

by Amy L. Silva Rigtrup

Regardless of the holidays you celebrate, the holiday season represents a time of togetherness, families, traditions and joy. For the bereaved, the emotions that accompany this time are usually compounded with stress, anxiety and even for those who lost their loved ones years ago, a resurgence of grief as if the loss just occurred.

For the bereaved, there’s a tendency to put expectations on ourselves for how we assume we “should” be coping or handling our grief. Around the holidays, these expectations are heightened. There is an assumed expectation that we put on ourselves to be happy, “put on our best faces” and not “be a downer” or “ruin the holidays” by acknowledging our grief. These expectations can lead to anxiety, especially when faced with the multiple gatherings and events that come with the holiday season.

Now throw in the well-meaning intentions of the support networks (family/friends/co-workers) of the bereaved. Maybe they are assuming that it’s in the best interest of the bereaved that the deceased loved one not be mentioned at the holiday event, fearing that it will upset him or her. In these situations, communication is key. Most people that are grieving a loss hardly go a minute or hour out of each day without thinking of their loved one – so bringing up that person will not only do the opposite of upset them, it will actually honor their grief.

“Honor their loved one. Honor their grief.” This quote was from the WJAR NBC10 Health Check News spot: Coping With Grief at The Holidays by my past guest, Deanna Upchurch, Grief Counselor at Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island (HHCRI). CLICK HERE to watch the video.

On this week’s episode of The Silva Lining, I was joined by Mark S. O’Neill, LCSW, Grief Counselor at HHCRI. Mark and I shared an emotional, poignant and at some points humorous conversation about grief, coping advice and meaningful ways to honor loved ones during the holidays. We expanded on the expectations/good intentions dynamic and went over the different things that the bereaved can allow themselves permission to do, reflect on, take part in and even say no to.

Every time I speak with anyone from HHCRI I am always blown away by their knowledge of grief, how easy they are to talk to and most of all, their commitment to the patients and families they serve and the amazing array of support they provide for various types of grief to people of all ages – specifically Camp BraveHeart, a FREE two-day camp for bereaved children, aged 4-17.

It was an honor that I was able to make this announcement on the show:

“Inspired by a common mission, Home Care & Hospice of New England, the parent company of Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island and Visiting Nursing Home Care, will be affiliating with Hyannis, Massachusetts based HopeHealth. This merger will create the largest nonprofit hospice and palliative care provider in New England, allowing the organization to grow to meet the needs of the people they serve in a much larger are. The headquarters will be in Providence, Rhode Island.”

This means all of Southeastern, MA!! I am very excited about this and look forward to many more communities having such caring and thoughtful grief support programs available much closer to home. Keep your eyes on and their bereavement support page for updated information about their support groups.

A few days before the show, I reached out to my friends and family on facebook to find out different ways that loved ones were honored, remembered and included in Holiday traditions. The feedback I received was absolutely beautiful, personalized and touching.

  • Friend’s father passed this year and his nickname was Moose. She is making moose cookies with a special cookie cutter and presenting his friends and family with a platter this Christmas.
  • Friend prepares her mother’s signature dishes/desserts and puts out fresh her favorite fresh cut flowers in a vase.
  • Friend is celebrating her second Christmas without her 4 year old son, who died of cancer and she has other children. Last year, everyone brought something for his stocking and she kept the items in a keepsake box for reflection each year. This year, she bought a Nordic Pine plant tree. Everyone will fill it with ornaments for him then the tree will be planted in his memorial garden and those ornaments will join the family tree next year.
  • Family member who recently lost her husband is honoring him everyday in small ways – by appreciating sunrises, making new memories and focusing on happiness, one step at a time.
  • Friend who just lost her young son is honoring him with a beautiful tree filled with ornaments that represent everything he loved and enjoyed along with beautiful ornaments with pictures of him.
  • Friend and her family for years has forgone gift exchanges and chosen charities each year to donate to in memory of a family member that has passed and this year, the charity is two NICU’s for the heartfelt gratitude they feel for the newest members in their family.
  • Friend and his family partake in a shot every Christmas Eve in honor of his grandmother, as they used to do with her when she was alive.
  • Friend has perfected her mother’s apple pie recipe – as hers was very precise and yummy! They also decorate family graves with Christmas decorations.

On the podcast, Mark had some beautiful things to say about the symbolism behind the passing down of recipes and actions from our ancestors and how it is directly connected in a positive way to the grieving process. Definitely worth a listen!

We also wanted to reach out to those families right now who are sitting bedside by their loved ones who are in hospice, at a nursing home or hospital. It is also very hard and emotional to be losing someone at this time of year. Mark, on the podcast, had some great advice as well about remembering to try to stay present, remembering that though your loved one may not be vocalizing, their sense of hearing is the last to go. So it’s always good to say what you want and need to say and know that on some level, they are hearing you. Your presence means so much to them.

As a funeral director, I know how much added stress there is when someone is close to dying around the holidays. Most families call trying to make plans before plans can be made. We are always glad to help, answer questions and provide options. Just know that until your loved one passes away, the last thing we would want is to take you away from them to make plans. These days, with phone calls and emails, a lot of the planning that satisfies the needs of most families can be done without taking you away from their bedside. If needed, we can even come to you. So don’t hesitate to call, but know that we will help you in any way we can without interfering with the most important task at hand – the love and support being provided for your loved one by you and your family.

The Silva Lining is thankful for our wonderful sponsor, St. Anthony of Padua Credit Union. We are proud to be sponsored by such an incredible bank, that in an age of conglomerate banks treating people like numbers, maintains a relationship with its members based on trust, friendly service and loyalty. With competitive rates for savings accounts and various loans, St. Anthony of Padua can handle all of your financial needs. Convenient online banking and more information at