How to Get Through the Holidays After Loss

If you’re struggling during the festive season, you’re not alone.,

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A young woman in Toronto who recently lost her father will be wearing his Santa hat on Christmas.

Another New York Times reader, newly divorced, says she will spend the holiday hiking up a mountain.

And a reader in Long Beach, Calif., says each holiday he makes a full meal, even if he’s alone — and then has pie for breakfast.

Holidays can bring all sorts of pain after a loss or another kind of family disruption. As I wrote in a recent essay in Well, the Halloween after my marriage ended reminded me of what I missed. On other holidays, my home felt empty without children in pajamas and Legos scattered across every room.

But I learned tricks to get through them: Start new rituals. Fill your days with hobbies. Make plans with friends. Brace yourself.

We asked our readers who have also found the holiday time difficult to tell us how they’ve learned to make the best of the season — and find meaning. Over 260 readers shared their experiences and tips. Here is a selection of their comments, which have been lightly edited.

Be intentional

Invest in yourself when you don’t have your kids. Take a trip, get a Mani-Pedi, sleep in … the first year I didn’t have my son for Christmas, I binged a “Law and Order” marathon and felt depressed and sad. The next time, I leaned in and went to Mexico and enjoyed the beach on Christmas and ate paella and was in a much better head space. — Jennifer Pembroke Johnson, Chicago

________

My dad passed away in September 2019; I was 25. Two years later, after an incredibly difficult first dad-less family Christmas in 2019 and an isolated Covid-19 holiday in 2020, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that the holidays aren’t going to be the same, and accepting this has been key to making them happier.

My dad was Santa, a true Christmas elf; he lived to decorate, host, and spoil everyone. No one else is my dad, but since we can’t recreate the past, choosing to see the holiday season as an opportunity to build new traditions for myself has been key to recapturing that holiday spirit.

I’m 28 now, and I get to organize plans with friends, family and my partner that make me happy — movie nights, holiday parties, Christmas markets, mulled wine on Fridays — I get to shape the holidays as I want them to be.

Finally, making space to remember some of my dad’s favorite traditions that I want to carry on is important too. I’ll be wearing his Santa hat on Christmas Day, and watching our favorite movies on Boxing Day. — Gillian Webb, Toronto

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Credit…Abbey Lossing

I’m not divorced (or married), but this will be a first holiday where all my family has died. My therapist says to be intentional with my day — even if that means intentionally staying in my PJs and watching my favorite movie. Just don’t let it sneak up on you. — Carolanne Fry, Portland, Ore.

Embrace the outdoors

Newly divorced, I celebrate holidays (starting with each birthday after 60) by doing something physically challenging and then toasting my accomplishments with a friend or two. This year I’ll hike 12 miles up and down a mountain on Christmas Day.

I am taking time to feel, appreciate and share the gift of going solo — which, in the end, is how we all travel in life. — Beth Anne Vilen, Asheville, N.C.

________

I lost my tradition-loving husband to Covid in April 2021. I purposely left our Christmas lights up until they slowly burned out in October. I am attempting to create a new way to recognize and observe the season that will still be “our way,” but honors the reality that we are doing it together while apart.

I find I think and connect more deeply if I can spend as much time as possible outdoors. Most of my reflection and communication with my husband, Roger, seems strongest in outdoor settings. — Rhonda Krull, Springfield, Mo.

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We lost our son (28) when a speeding driver took him out while he was biking. To some, his death, 18 months ago, seems like a long time ago; to us, not. We plan to be with relatives who will acknowledge and accept our grief. We will alter traditions and spend the holidays out of town, experiencing a new environment in a place where few know he has died. Seek and work on gratitude, gratitude for family, friends, the wonder of life. For me, being out in nature, slowing down, being present and witnessing the beauty of a tree, sky, leaf, stream, brings loving peace and even a connection to my son. — Judith Proctor, Fairfield, Conn.

________

As a widow with an adult child who currently doesn’t speak to me, I always plan ahead for this difficult time, knowing the sadness is unavoidable, but doing what I can to care for myself. My plans include: avoiding social media as much as I can, spending lots of time outdoors with my dogs and maybe another widow friend and leaving town, if only for a day, to look at another horizon. — Helen Ensign, Atlanta

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Credit…Abbey Lossing

Plan an escape

The Christmas after my 28-year-old son died unexpectedly filled my husband and me with dread. Our daughter was in Atlanta in a surgical residency and was working nonstop; our going there would have been a drag on her and us. We knew we could not stay home — the mere thought of waking on Christmas morning alone brought me to tears. Staying with family or friends was out — we could not ruin someone else’s holiday with our pain, and we could not deal with anyone else’s joy.

Then my brilliant husband thought of Kripalu, a yoga center in Massachusetts. Although neither of us was really into yoga, the thought of an anonymous stay at a very non-Christian and meditative center was appealing. The accommodations were austere, fitting with our moods. We referred to it as the “un-Christmas,” and it fit our needs well. We stretched and faked some yoga positions, ate healthy foods, trudged through the post-snow winter scape. We read and journaled. We talked. We cried. Almost healing.

Since then, we have been able to add bits of the holiday back. We spent the next few Christmases at local inns — no fuss, no muss, and not home. Thanks to Covid, we finally spent last Christmas at our minimally decorated home. Maybe one year we might have a tree again, or outside decorations, but I suspect not until we have grandkids visiting. — Karen Heitzman, Manlius, N.Y.

Create new traditions

I go all out and make holiday dinners, even though it will be just me. I find it reaffirms my story and brings good feelings by making the meals the same as my before life. Besides, leftovers are the best and I can have pie for breakfast.– Scott Renner, Long Beach, Calif.

________

I guess “planning” is a good idea, but DISTRACTION is key.

On Thanksgiving, I go to Golden Corral or Cracker Barrel. Even though it’s crowded and there’s a line, the clamor of people and warmth of diners feels like my childhood Thanksgivings with my huge Italian family now long dispersed. Sometimes, I even offer to share a table with another singleton, so that we can be seated earlier. So far, that has been wonderful. — Mary E. Tyler, Williamsburg, Va.

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