By Beth Ann Mayer

2021 survey of 2,000 U.S. adults indicated that 36 percent of respondents didn’t want to celebrate the holidays because of feelings of grief or loss.

On the other hand, some people may not dread the holidays, even if it’s the first without a friend or loved one. That’s OK, too.

“Just because somebody feels OK about the holiday season doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving,” says Megan Devine, psychotherapist and grief expert. “Maybe someone is excited about the holiday season because they get to connect with their extended family whom they haven’t seen all year. There’s the idea that grief looks one way, and if you’re not feeling that way, you can feel like you’re failing.”

Grief exists on a spectrum

In short, there’s a whole spectrum of possible ways to feel and deal with grief, and they don’t have to match anyone else’s experience or expectations.

Devine says it’s best to keep communication and respect front of mind when navigating grief during the holiday season.

Not all conversations and situations will be comfortable, though. In these difficult moments, she emphasizes it’s important to have boundaries and coping mechanisms in place in advance.

Start talking early

Devine advises against waiting until the day before a holiday gathering to discuss how you want to handle traditions or honor the person’s memory.

“It’s OK to preemptively be like, ‘We’re heading into the holiday season. What are some traditions you want to do? I have some that feel interesting to me or horrifying to me, and I would love to talk about it,’” Devine says.

Devine says this opens the door for conversations to happen early so everyone can be on the same page when the big day arrives.


People who love one another can have different needs and boundaries.

Your sister may want to bake Mom’s apple pie, but you may want to skip the tradition altogether. Devine stresses that it’s important to try to understand one another, even if it means agreeing to disagree.

Your sister isn’t morbid for wanting to bake the pie. It just makes her feel closer to your mother.

“Respect that other people are going to want things that don’t match what you want or need,” Devine says. “You’re not looking for consensus, because consensus will not happen…it’s about how many needs we can represent at the table during the holiday.”

If there’s a difference, you can say, “I’m so glad that feels good for you. That doesn’t feel right to me, so I don’t want to be a part of it.”

In the case of apple pie, you may choose to leave before dessert.

In a best-case scenario, everyone would respect this decision.

Of course, in reality, relationships are complicated. Sometimes you have to weigh whether skipping out on dessert will offend a family member so much that it’s worse than just sitting through those 30 minutes.

“If you do decide to go to something, have a [plan] about how you’re going to support yourself,” Devine says.

Have an endpoint

One way to support yourself through something you decide to do out of obligation to others is to set a deadline.

“Say, ‘“I am going to stay until 9:00, and then I have this reason to leave,’” Devine says.

Think about it: A common refrain we hear from workout instructors is, “You can do anything for one minute.”

Devine says the same concept applies to getting through a holiday dinner when you want to stay home.

“We can survive stressful things if we know the endpoint,” she says.

Bring an object to anchor yourself

Devine recommends bringing a tangible object that reminds you of your life outside of the event you’re attending. It can act as an anchor when things feel difficult.

Perhaps it’s the necklace you wore when you nailed a work presentation or a shawl a close friend gave you.

You’re going to return to your partner, children, colleagues, or friends at some point after this event—some scenario where you feel seen, appreciated, and heard.

“There’s something very grounding about [having] something you can hold onto to remind you that it does actually end,” Devine says.

Consider it like a teddy bear.

2020 study found that transitional objects provide security and symbolic connection with valued others when separated from them.

Take a break

Plan to step away from the group every once in a while. Devine says this might mean heading to the bathroom, even if people wonder why, or going outside for fresh air.

During this time, she suggests texting a friend or practicing a breathing exercise.

2022 review suggested that breathwork was one way to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress.

A 2021 study of 240 participants indicated that a roughly 10-minute empathetic phone call reduced loneliness, depression, and anxiety compared with the control group and improved the general mental health of participants within 4 weeks.

Know your warning signs

Devine says the idea that someone “just snapped” is a misnomer.

“Outbursts don’t just happen,” she says.

Going off on a relative is often the result of more than a day’s worth of difficult comments—or a years-long conflict you’ve had with them. These issues can be compounded by grief and lack of communication.

Even if you do communicate needs and boundaries, there’s a chance they may get crossed. This may be upsetting. Trying to catch your feelings early can prevent an outburst.

Devine suggests you don’t wait when you notice these signs—take that break, or turn to someone you trust for support.

She also recommends considering this tip even if you’re excited about the gathering, as sometimes things can take a turn.

Honor your loved one together and individually

Devine suggests asking yourself, “What would honor their life or absence look like?”

“There is no wrong way to honor or remember someone,” she says. “That gives people an opportunity to come up with things because they get stuck in, ‘I have to do it right.’”

Try doing something to make you feel closer to the person. Some ideas include:

  • displaying a photograph where everyone can see it
  • an empty seat at the table
  • a moment of silence before a meal
  • donations made in your loved one’s name
  • volunteering somewhere that would mean something to them
  • get creative with personalized ideas

“You can say, ‘Dad really loved hot dogs. It would be really cool to have hot dogs be dinner,” Devine says.

Devine knows a family who handed out their deceased father’s ties to their holiday guests. The guests were then asked to make something with the tie as a gift to someone else. It was like a fun twist on a White Elephant gift exchange.

“That’s a really funny and creative way to play with it,” Devine says. “It’s OK to be creative and playful instead of somber.”


Though you may feel like the only one struggling, Devine says you’re not alone. There are several resources available when you need additional support.

They include:

Still, Devine emphasizes that the biggest resource is yourself.

“Check in with yourself and ask what you need, because the answers are not always outside,” Devine says. “Ask yourself what you’re feeling, what you need, and what a good holiday season would look like for you.”


The holidays don’t always sparkle, shine, and happiness, particularly if you’re grieving.

You can give yourself permission to approach the holidays differently in light of a loss, even when others have expectations of you. When other family members or friends are involved, communication, respect, and compromise are critical.

Resources like therapy, podcasts, and books can be helpful.

Overall, remember: Only you can decide what’s best for you, and you’re allowed to do just that.