As the month of December approached, Kenneth, who was recently widowed after a three-decade marriage, confided in a friend:

“I feel like I could use a pause button so that I could put a hold on my grief from Dec. 1 through Jan. 1. Or, I wish I could use that pause button on my life for that month so I could just skip over those days and avoid having to deal with all the festivities around me.”

His feeling is a common one for those who are grieving the death of a loved one. While most other people are celebrating and socializing, grievers struggle with feelings of sadness and loneliness.

Yet, it is possible to celebrate and grieve in December. Here are some guidelines.


Be flexible. The first December after a loved one has died is not the time to be rigid about the celebration. Give yourself permission to be flexible and compromising.

Some people prefer to maintain exactly the same holiday traditions. This prevents the feeling of yet another change in lifestyle. Others, however, feel the need to change it up.

One woman, whose husband died in September, recalls: “I needed to do things differently. The very idea of the traditional family Christmas meal in my home felt awkward, as there would be an empty chair.”

She expressed her feelings to her family, and they supported her in opting to have the family holiday meal at a restaurant.


Know when to say “no.” More than any other time of the year, December is the month filled with social opportunities to celebrate with family, friends, and work colleagues.

Dr. Tali Berliner, a psychologist, says it is both important and appropriate for grievers to set boundaries for holiday events.

“You can participate and not participate in whatever feels right for you. While there may be pressure to attend a holiday party, family gathering, holiday show — remember to check in with your wants and needs to identify your readiness.

“It may be helpful to commit to something that sounds fun while reminding yourself that you don’t have to stay the entire time. It is also OK to opt out of certain things altogether. Finding a balance between engaging and not pushing yourself is important.”


Practice self-care. That’s the advice of social worker Sophia Franklin, who says: “One of the most important things you can give yourself as a gift is self-care.

“Especially if you suffer from holiday blues, or even with clinically diagnosed depression, be sure to include time in your schedule to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. Get outdoors, try to exercise, get some pampering with a massage, or even just take a long bath and indulge in aromatherapy.

“Self-care decreases your chance of feeling blue during the holiday season, and it increases your ability to thrive well beyond the holidays.”


Honor and include the deceased. Even though December is a busy, active month, you will still be aware of the “empty chair.”

Rather than dismissing those feelings and acting as if everything were the same, think of ways to honor and include the deceased person.

Others have done this by lighting a candle of remembrance; sitting quietly for one minute in reflection and prayer; placing a special holiday ornament on the tree; bringing out a photo album and having the family share thoughts about times together with the deceased; playing his or her favorite holiday music; preparing a favorite recipe of the deceased; or visiting the grave.

These kinds of actions will help the family feel connected to one another as well as to the one who is absent.


Perform kind acts for others. Although you’re in the pain of grief, remind yourself you still have something good and positive to offer others. Performing acts of kindness will lift and alter your own spirit.

Consider this insight from psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair:

“Action can be strong medicine in times of trouble. If you are afraid, help someone who lives in fear. For example, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter. If you’re sad and lonely, work for the homeless. If you’re struggling with despair, volunteer at a hospice.

“Get your hands dirty with the emotion that scares you. This is one of the best ways to find hope in despair, to find connection in a shared grief, and to discover the joy of working to create a less broken world.”

Finally, do your best to remain hopeful and positive. “Hope is being able to see there is light despite all the darkness,” says Rev. Desmond Tutu.


Victor M. Parachin, M.Div., is a grief counselor, bereavement educator, and author of several books, including Healing Grief.

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