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Navigating Grief and Loss During the Holidays

9 ways to be prepared when a crushing moment pops up out of nowhere.

Key points

  • Triggers can happen at any time.
  • Triggers can be seemingly endless.
  • What should the bereaved be aware of concerning triggers? What are four holiday season dilemmas to be aware of?

What are "triggers"? In the area of grieving, triggers, or “grief spasms,” as they are often called, occur when everything seems to be going along okay and the bereaved are finally beginning to feel they “have a handle” on their grief when an anniversary of a marriage, death, or other event unsettles the bereaved.

Some other examples are:

  • A phone call from a telemarketer who wants to speak to the deceased, and the bereaved have to explain that their loved one has died.
  • When a magazine continues to arrive with the deceased’s name on the cover and the bereaved spouse has already canceled the subscription.
  • When the bereaved are walking down the street, in a store, or at the mall and see someone from a distance wearing the same outfit that their loved one wore and they think it could be them—still alive.
  • When the bereaved are driving or walking down the street and see a couple holding hands and realize that this is no longer possible for them with their loved one. Perhaps they are at the mall and smell someone’s cologne and it was the exact cologne their loved one wore. Perhaps they just turned on the radio in their car and it is playing the song that their loved one enjoyed singing or dancing to.
  • They go to the store and run into someone they haven’t seen in awhile and are asked how their wife/husband is doing.
  • Perhaps you are shopping and suddenly realize you are now shopping for one rather than two.
  • A rose bush has not bloomed since your loved one died and, suddenly, on their birthday it blooms beautiful roses again.

Examples of triggers could go on and on for the bereaved and can cause a setback in their grief if they are not careful.

The anticipation of birthdays and anniversaries is often more troublesome than the actual event. What should the bereaved do when the birthday or anniversary occurs? Do they ignore it, not saying anything to anyone? Do they go out to dinner with friends and raise a glass in memory of their deceased loved one? Bring flowers to the cemetery? The answer is simple: it is up to each individual to decide what will bring them comfort at that time. Even doing nothing is something.

With the holidays, there are more constant reminders. Decorations in the stores, greeting cards on the shelves, holiday displays and discounts on toys and other gifts, holiday movies, Christmas trees being sold on every other street corner. In other words, no matter where you go or what you do, you can’t hide from the holidays or make changes before they arrive. Or can you?

There are several ideas that can help the bereaved during the holidays, as well as approaching birthdays and anniversaries. It is a matter of taking back control and being prepared:

  1. The most important thing to do is to have a plan. In fact, have plan A, B, and even C if necessary. It will help the day go smoother.
  2. Talk with family and friends before the scheduled event to let them know how difficult this might be for you and that you might have to leave early.
  3. You are not obligated to go to every party.
  4. If everyone always comes to your house for dinner, suggest someone else's house or going out to dinner this year.
  5. If you have always sent Christmas cards, decorated the house, or done a lot of baking, this might be the year for a change. Perhaps you could either send no cards or not as many; not decorate as much or not at all; and instead of baking this year, just go out and buy that pie or dessert.
  6. Take care of yourself and don’t add expectations that will cause you additional stress.
  7. Do something to honor your loved one’s memory, such as giving money in their name to a charity they liked, having a mass said for them, lighting a candle in memory of them, having a scholarship set up in their name for a student in the same area as the deceased, or donating books in their memory to a library if they loved to read.
  8. Try very hard to keep only positive people around you, especially during the holidays and other special events in your life—those people who will allow you to cry without telling you to move on or get over your loved one’s death.
  9. If you had been to a support group before, it might be a good idea to go again during the holidays for some extra support.

Camille Wortman (2009) warned of four holiday season dilemmas to be aware of:

  1. Being Happy and Cheerful: There seems to be an expectation that everyone should be happy and cheerful during the holidays. Please allow yourself to feel what you want—happy, sad, cheerful, unhappy—not what others expect of you.
  2. The Minefield of Social Exchange: The innocent comments of others may cause a great deal of pain to the bereaved. The bereaved can be thrown off by the comments of complete strangers. “Hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday” sounds like a wonderful greeting, but when someone has died this greeting is very difficult to hear.
  3. The Complexity of Decisions: The bereaved must decide what to do and what not to do when it comes to dealing with decisions about family activities and rituals. For example, a simple gesture such as whether or not to hang a stocking of the young child that died or sending holiday cards to family and friends may cause problems for the bereaved.
  4. The Ambush: These are events that are unexpected and unpredictable. They are often called grief attacks or zingers. An example by Noel and Blair (2000) is: a mother was taking out her Christmas ornaments and came across one that her young son, who died, had made in kindergarten last year. It had his handprint on it. She was so overwhelmed she dropped to her knees and just sobbed.

Be aware of being ambushed and always have a plan, take control, and let family and friends know your wishes early.



Wortman, C. (2009). Getting through the holidays: Advice for the bereaved. University of Phoenix: WGBH Educational Foundation and Vulcan Productions, Inc.

Noel, B., & Blair, P.D. (2000). I wasn't ready to say goodbye. Vancouver, WA: Champion Press

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