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Published on November 30, 2020

woman comforting husband

Holiday Heartbreak: How to Celebrate After the Death of a Loved One

One aspect of the holidays sometimes gets little attention, even though it can lead to stress, anxiety and tears.

The loved ones who have passed away live on in our memories, and sometimes the pain of those remembered times, and the fact those people are not with us, can make it challenging to celebrate without a sense of loss.

Avera Behavioral Health Thanatologist Mark Vande Braak, PhD, said each person handles grief differently, so there is no rulebook with how to mourn, especially during a time of year known for its festive gatherings. Vande Braak specializes in thanatology, which is the study of death and dying.

“Planning can give us a handhold on the feelings we may face, especially when we are talking about the second or third holiday season after the death. I mention that because it’s false that the ‘first’ year is the biggest struggle,” Vande Braak said. “Some set up a time or day to remember those who are gone, and others will set an empty place at the table. The approaches vary, but the best thing to do is to communicate with every person in the family.”

Facing the Elephant in the Room

Talking about the person, remembering him and considering how the possibility of sadness or grief at a gathering may arise, all are steps that go a long way toward facing the season with the best possible state of mind, he said.

“We often need to remember: what would our loved ones who have passed away want from us during this holiday season?” Vande Braak said. “When we think about that and talk with our family, we can avoid having that death become the elephant in the room during Thanksgiving dinner or while we’re around the tree on Christmas.”

Facing Grief Together

But emotions are tricky things, and even a well-designed plan that everyone discusses cannot stop the tears from coming. Remember: we all face the pain of grief differently.

“We need to say what we need to say, and if others do not want to talk about it, that’s OK, but we need to remove the stigma about feeling that emotion. Don’t run away from the tears,” he said. “Stuffing it down because we are afraid it’ll make others sad or upset isn’t going to help. Walk through it, and try to let go of that idea of ‘fixing it.’ We often encourage patients to move the grief from the head to heart.”

Focus on The Gifts They Gave You

Vande Braak explains this movement of grief, the Berafian Model, is a good method for people facing loss. In time they can consider many gifts the person has left behind, instead of the painful fact they are gone.

“It’s an approach that works, and it helps during times like the holidays. We put that focus on what I call ‘the dash’ – focus not on the birthday, or the day they died, but instead everything in between – their lives,” Vande Braak said. “Remember, we want to try to relocate our grief from our heads to our hearts. Planning, communicating with your family and friends and thinking about how those who have died would want you to spend the holidays. Each of these pieces can help.”

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