Navigating the Holidays After a Loss

Navigating the Holidays After a Loss

by Andrea Tam

There are many ways to process a loss. During the holidays, it can be extra difficult for people who experienced a loss. It can be challenging to feel happy and festive when you feel sad, alone, and isolated.

A few years ago, my husband, Brad, and my dad, Jule, died from cancer. Brad died in January, and my dad died in October of that same year.

That year of loss created a fear. A fear that came around once a year, we call, the holidays. My mom had passed away two years prior. At the time, the dynamics in our family were such that there would never be any holiday events, traditions, rituals, or celebrations ever again.

None. Zip. Nada. Full stop. Then, as time passes by, reflection kicks in. Knowing time waits for no one person, the ability to reflect upon such an experience manifests itself into how we felt versus how we feel today.

The best part about the worst time in your life is that you get to see people for who they are. At that time, I felt ashamed that I did not have my family’s support. I was very alone.

Now, I see it was a gift.

I was free to create my rituals, traditions, and celebrations without the sense of obligation, dread, sacrifice, and heaviness that would have accompanied those events had my family participated.

Thankfully, I had time to develop a plan to navigate the holidays. You can create a plan to manage the holidays too.

My first suggestion is to tell yourself and others that this year will be different. Keeping up appearances and maintaining some traditions can drain your energy. You can conserve your energy by being honest with yourself and others. This year your holiday activities will be different, and that is ok. Your honesty and lack of expectations will free you from disappointments.

The best way to avoid potential problems is to be preventative.

At the time, my mantra was ‘Be Preventative.’ I wanted to avoid feeling shame, sadness, and isolation during the holidays.

Here’s the process I used to create my holiday plan:

Make a list. Grab a sheet of paper or use the checklist feature in your Notes app on your mobile phone. On your paper, start by drawing a line down the center of the page. Next, at the top of the left column, write ‘People I am comfortable seeing during the holidays.’ In the right column, write ‘People I am uncomfortable seeing during the holidays.” You can limit your list to immediate family members only and exclude extended family and friends from it. That year, my list included friends since they are family.

Ask your immediate family members to make their lists:

  • Invite them to use the same process you used to create yours.
  • If children are involved, ask them what activities they want to do and jot. that information down.
Schedule a meeting with your immediate family/friends to:
  • Identify the holiday-related tasks, events, and celebrations (i.e., activities) and share that information with them.
  • Create an activities schedule. Ask your immediate family members who want to participate in the various activities.
  • Give yourself and others permission to opt in or out of those activities that create discomfort.
  • Check that every participating family member feels heard.
  • Plan some self-care for yourself and encourage others to do the same.

Set boundaries: Relax and do not allow anyone to encourage or manipulate you into spending time with anyone whose name is on your ‘uncomfortable list.’ Boundaries are about protecting what is inside of them. Guard your peace of mind and maintain your boundaries.

Allow yourself to feel the full extent of your feelings: During the holidays, there may be moments when you feel sad. It’s ok to cry in a store if you see a present that reminds you of your beloved. The loss also brings anger to it. It’s ok to vent and let it out in a healthy manner. Let others know that it’s ok for them to feel the full extent of their feelings too.

At the end of this exercise, I had three people on my list. Yup, there were only three people I felt comfortable being around at the time. Grief is also exhausting. I knew my three friends would be sensitive to that, and they would not bring extra drama with them or pull any energy away from me.

After consulting with my three friends to see if they had plans, one said she was available and wanted to spend the holidays with me. She and I made a simple list of activities we wanted to do. Then we figured out an easy-breezy plan for that week.

She and I are laid-back personalities, so our list was more of an outline than an actual schedule.

Our holiday started when I picked her up at the airport on Christmas Eve. That evening, we stayed up late to watch a movie and catch up with each other.

On Christmas Day, we slept in and ate brunch. Around 3 pm that afternoon, we started to prepare our dinner. We cooked and cooked and baked. We drank wine and played Brad’s favorite music while singing along with it, loud and off-key. She and I howled with laughter, cried, complained, and had a lovely time, and that evening, we ate our delicious dinner.

My friend stayed with me for a week. We kept our schedule light and flexible. The truth is what we did every day was determined by how much energy I had at any given moment.

On New Year’s Eve, we ventured into the city for lunch. We had fun walking around the city and eating delicious food. Later that evening, we had a quiet dinner and talked about our hopes and dreams for a better year.

She flew out on New Year’s Day. I was sad to see her go, but I was grateful to have spent the holidays with her. During our visit, there were moments when I laughed and enjoyed myself. My friend said she had enjoyed the holidays, too.

As a result of my planning, I created an environment where I could be myself, feel safe, experience my emotions, cry, talk about Brad and my Dad and vent my anger without feeling shame or weirdness. I also enjoyed spending time with a beloved friend who let me be me at a difficult time in my life.

There are many ways to process a loss of loved one, like me creating a supportive environment for myself during the holidays. If you or someone you know is processing loss, consider a gift box filled with positive rituals, care, and love. Sometimes, the simple act of giving one of our gift boxes helps someone find a way of processing loss.

Thank you for reading,

Andrea Tam
Founder @ Robiins
Processing loss. One gift box at a time.™

Andrea Tam
Andrea Tam



The Annual Girls Weekend at the Cabin
The Annual Girls Weekend at the Cabin

by Andrea Tam

“I see you researching and reading a lot of books about loss, so logically you understand the various aspects of it and the theories behind it. My observation is that you are up in their head, but you need to get into your heart so you can start to heal."

Read More

Naked and Under the Car
Naked and Under the Car

by Andrea Tam

One of the things I have learned is that when you share the stories of your loved ones, they become alive. 

Read More

A Ritual
A Ritual

by Andrea Tam

"Vivian, your ritual will help you show up differently in your marriage to Michelle. I suggest you give yourself space to process our work today. See if you notice anything different over the next few weeks," said Rebecca.

Read More